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"Gagged" by the Government: a Police-State Story

By       Message Alfredo Lopez     Permalink
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For the past three months, I and other leaders of the organization May First/People Link have been under a federal subpoena to provide information we don't have. During that time, we have also been forbidden by a federal court "gag order" to tell anyone about that subpoena, although we had already announced it and commented on it before the order was sent. Finally, we were forbidden from telling anyone about the gag order itself.

It all sounds comical but any laughter would end if we violated that "gag order," because that would be a felony and we could face prison sentences and huge fines.

We were silenced by our own government in a case we had nothing to do with and over information we didn't have... and we couldn't tell anyone about any of it.

The flag we should be flying!
(image by Electronic Frontier Foundation)

The court order has now expired as of December 18 and I am now free to talk about it.

It's actually not easy to write about. Not because it was very painful -- it really wasn't. But it was so bizarre, illogical and foreign to my normal experience that it cut into the normal expectation of discourse and communications I, and people in this country, take for granted as a right. Not being able to talk about something and not being able to explain why was among the most surreal experiences I've had in nearly 50 years as an activist and, because of its implication, it was one of the most disturbing.

It's also difficult because I have no complete political context for this. I know there are many activists who are under such gag orders but I don't who they are. They are gagged and, while the order that restrained us came from a judge and had a three-month time limit, many of these orders are issued instead as a federal National Security Letter and they are open-ended. I know people who have been gagged for years and had to press hard to have the order lifted long after the relevant investigation was over.

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I also know that about 300,000 such letters have been issued over the last ten years -- over 140,000 between 2003 and 2005.

The numbers alone attest to the seriousness of this situation. So let me explain what happened to us.

Among other things, May First/People Link provides Internet hosting services to its members -- like a web host. Most of our members are activists and activist organizations in the United States and Mexico but we have a few members in other countries who need the security of data and protection from government intrusion which we provide on principle.

We've been doing that for a decade and during that decade we have received many information requests, letters about investigations and other less official but just as daunting actions like threats from companies who believe their copyright has been violated in some satirical piece on them. We respond by resisting all these requests for as long as we can and usually the affected member tells us to comply. Since May First doesn't keep much recorded information on members, there's not much to turn over.

On September 5 this year, the Department of Justice (apparently cooperating with Greek law-enforcement authorities) demanded account information about the Athens (Greece) Indymedia Center (IMC), one of our members. Although no government has confirmed this, we believe the target of the investigation was an activist organization wanted by Greek law enforcement that is believed to have used the Indymedia website at one point. There's nothing unique or surprising about that -- IndyMedia is an international organization dedicated to providing news about movements world-wide, news that is often written by those movements. So anyone who wants to post on an Indymedia Center website is freely allowed to do so.
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In fact, the Athens IMC had very little information on the organization under investigation. It doesn't maintain logs or records of visitors. It just had a couple of email addresses that the government already knew about. In other words, we didn't have anything the government wanted and couldn't turn over what we didn't have even if we wanted to. Normally, things would have ended there.

But this request was different from others we've received because the government subpoena demanded information not just for the Athens IMC but for the entire server their site is on. And that serve, which belongs to us, hosts many other May First members.

This was particularly egregious for two reasons. First, those other MF/PL members had nothing to do with this investigation and seizing their information not only violated the privacy and data-protection principles we live by but it also violated any concept of responsible investigation. The government wanted us to turn over information about members who didn't even know anything about this case and who had no connection at all to Athens IMC (much less the target of the investigation).

Second, the Athens IMC itself wasn't suspected of doing anything illegal, but the Greek government could easily use information concerning it for repressive purposes. We knew there was nothing connected to its investigation on that server so why were these people trying to get this information?

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.

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