I-Witness Video Blog : The Policing of Protest
Monday, 5 Oct 2009
For the second time in a week, federal anti-terrorism agents raided the location of New York activist Elliot Madison, saying that he and another man had been using Twitter to direct the movements of G20 protesters and update them about movements of police in Pittsburgh.
Madison was arrested mid-Tweet last week in a Pittsburgh motel room. This past Thursday his Queens home was raided and searched for 16-hours while helicopters circled overhead.
Madison's attorney Martin Stolar says the search by FBI agents was illegal. Stolar has obtained a
temporary order from federal Judge Dora Irizarry prohibiting the government from searching the seized
material, which included books and a picture of Vladimir Lenin.
Madison is known for his work with the People's Law Collective, which has provided legal support to thousands of people arrested during demonstrations in New York and other cities.
How Can the Government Say it's a Crime to Tweet?
2009 is the year when Twitter and other social networking tools have emerged to have a major impact in social movements in Burma, Moldova and Iran. It is difficult to understand the justification for the raids in Pittsburgh and Queens considering the applause in the press for Twitter's use as a tool to undermine authoritarian governments around the world. Twitter was the best source for instant news from the streets during the protests about the Iranian elections, with raw, impossible-to-verify-in-the-moment Tweets appearing on the websites of the New York Times, the Atlantic and Huffington Post. In fact the U.S. State Department considered Twitter to be so important in Iran that it intervened to make sure that Twitter did not shut down for maintenance at a key point during the demonstrations.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told CBS News, "we noticed people creating accounts during the riots [in Iran] presumably because they heard Twitter was the most efficient way to discover and share what was happening in the moment."
Hmm. It sounds like the activists in Pittsburgh might have been using Twitter for the very same reasons Iranians did, doesn't it? So what's the problem?
Although the U.S. State Department has encouraged activists to use Twitter internationally, U.S. Army Intelligence has called Twitter a potential terrorist tool, referring to activists' use of Twitter domestically during the 2008 Republican National Convention.
There are myriad examples of governments in other countries cracking down on activists who share information on the Internet. After Moldova's short-lived "Twitter revolution," journalist Natalia Morar was charged with organizing an anti-Communist flashmob and spent three weeks under house arrest. In Guatemala a man was charged with advising in a Tweet that people should take their money out of a corrupt government bank. According to Hadi Ghaemi, who runs the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, many people have been arrested for Internet activity in Iran.
Former U.S. Attorney Cynthia Kouril, blogging at Firedoglake, asks "what legal steps the prosecution is taking to distinguish between political speech and real time reporting versus criminal accessory conduct and incitement to riot."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted several legal documents related to the raids, including the criminal complaint, search warrants and motions from Madison's attorneys.
We are now living in a world in which technology allows us to share information on a real-time basis. So, what country should the U.S. government take its cues from when making policies about this? Moldova? Burma? Guatemala? Iran? Or, should we try for something a bit more radical? You might call it homegrown freedom.