Less than a week after the U.S.-directed London seizure of two of its servers, the collective news organization IndyMedia said Wednesday that the devices have been returned to its service provider, Rackspace.
However, the 20 or so sites that these servers host will remain closed to the public until the organization can inspect the disks and ensure their contents have not been altered.
Both IndyMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is providing the collective with legal representation, say it's still unclear exactly what happened, who ordered the seizures or on what basis they were ordered. The best guess insiders offer, because of the sequence of events, is that the seizure was provoked by a posting that originated on IndyMedia's Swiss site, and that the seizure request therefore originated with Swiss police.
The posting in question appeared on IndyMedia's Swiss site about Sept. 7, and included several photographs of two men that accompanying paragraphs in French claimed were undercover Swiss police photographing G8 protesters. The posting was picked up and reposted on a second IndyMedia site based in Nantes, France. These sites are autonomous, like the rest of IndyMedia's 50 sites.
According to Devin Theriot-Orr, a Seattle-based IndyMedia volunteer and an attorney with Edwards, Sieh, Smith, and Goodfriend, around Sept. 22 IndyMedia volunteers received e- mail from Rackspace requesting the removal of the posting and alleging that it contained personal information about and threats against the two officers. The posting was edited to remove a comment about revenge being a dish best served cold and to blank out the officers' faces.
On Oct. 1, Theriot-Orr received a visit from two FBI agents, apparently on behalf of the Swiss government. "They came in and asked questions about the post and I clarified it with them. It's not illegal to take pictures of officers taking pictures of us and posting them, and they agreed and said it was not a U.S. investigation, but a Swiss matter, and they were acting ... on behalf of the Swiss government."
The Swiss government, they told Theriot-Orr, was not concerned about the photos, but wanted personal identifying information removed. "I said, 'OK, I have no power or control over the French IndyMedia center, since each one is autonomous, but I will pass it on.'" They left, and he assumed the matter was resolved. A week later, the two servers went offline.
Rackspace's press statement says little more than the company told IndyMedia at the time. "Rackspace Managed Hosting, a U.S.-based company with offices in London, is acting in compliance with a court order pursuant to Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering.
Rackspace responded to a Commissioner's subpoena, duly issued under Title 28, United States Code, Section 1782 in an investigation that did not arise in the United States.
Rackspace is acting as a good corporate citizen and is cooperating with international law enforcement authorities. The court prohibits Rackspace from commenting further on this matter."
Both Theriot-Orr and the EFF's counsel, Kevin Bankston, stressed that no one knows yet what actually happened.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Bankston, "but we are going to take legal actions to get them answered. The immediate problem is solved, but we are trying to figure out what the agency was and which the issuing court was."
Even the FBI agents he's talked to seem unsure. "We think it's clearly illegal, but before we can proceed we need more facts," he said. Once it's identified the court, the EFF's first move will be to ask for the subpoena to be unsealed.
Theriot-Orr compares the seizure to shutting down 20 printing presses, and said, "I'm glad it's happening to us, in that we are prepared to fight it, and we have access to the resources to fight this and make it public."