When Tweeting is a crime


ACLU: Arrest of G20 Twitterer part of ‘war on demonstrators’

By David Edwards and Stephen Webster
Monday, October 5th, 2009 — 7:45 pm

When the FBI staged a terror raid on the New York home of 41-year-old Elliot Madison, they were not looking for weapons of war, deadly chemicals or the keys to unlocking a nefarious terror plot. Instead, they came looking for books, files, data, film and something called the “instruments of crime.”

According to officials, the search was instigated after Madison was found in a Pennsylvania hotel room on Sept. 24, listening to police actions during Pittsburgh’s G20 summit, then Tweeting to protesters seeking to avoid authorities.

Vic Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania ACLU, sees the FBI’s action as pure “intimidation,” and part of a “much bigger war on demonstrators” in Pittsburgh.

He made the remarks during a Monday interview on CNN’s Newsroom.

“What you have here is folks who are charged with hindering apprehension of people who were engaging in criminal activities,” he said. “The criminals identified in the warrant are protesters against the G20. Their crime? They were demonstrating in the street without a permit.”

Madison, who has widely been described as an “anarchist” by media parroting FBI claims, is a social worker in New York who holds two masters degrees from the University of Wisconsin.

Walczak continued: “The police said, ‘Get out of here,’ and apparently they did. Somebody was trying to help them not go where the police are. Instead of saying ‘thank you, you’re helping these folks disperse,’ they now get charged with what is really a felony.”

In other words: “Be careful what you twit for, because your 140 characters could land you in the slammer,” quipped Andrew Belonsky at Vallywag.

“Though the FBI says so, it’s not entirely clear from the complaint that Madison’s tweets were actually illegal,” noted Ars Technica. “Madison’s lawyer told the New York Times on Saturday that he and a friend were merely ‘part of a communications network among people protesting the G-20.’ As implied through the Times piece, Madison’s tweets merely directed protesters as to where the police were at any given time and to stay alert. ‘There’s absolutely nothing that he’s done that should subject him to any criminal liability.'”

Eileen Clancy with I-Witness Video added: “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.”

“This is the first time we’ve heard of charges like this against people who are using Twitter […]” said Walczak. “If this happened in Iran or China, where we know Twitter has been widespread because people in this country have been relying on it to find out what’s going on. If it was used there, we’d be crying foul, we’d be calling it a human rights violation. And when the same thing happens in this country, all of the sudden it’s a crime. There’s a real problem here.”

Copies of the search warrant and Madison’s lawyer’s motion for return of seized property were posted to the Internet by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, available here.

This video is from CNN’s Newsroom, broadcast Oct. 5, 2009.



Arrest Puts Focus on Protesters’ Texting

Published: October 5, 2009

As demonstrations have evolved with the help of text messages and online social networks, so too has the response of law enforcement.

On Thursday, F.B.I. agents descended on a house in Jackson Heights, Queens, and spent 16 hours searching it. The most likely reason for the raid: a man who lived there had helped coordinate communications among protesters at the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh.

The man, Elliot Madison, 41, a social worker who has described himself as an anarchist, had been arrested in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24 and charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime. The Pennsylvania State Police said he was found in a hotel room with computers and police scanners while using the social-networking site Twitter to spread information about police movements. He has denied wrongdoing.

American protesters first made widespread use of mass text messages in New York, during the 2004 Republican National Convention, when hundreds of people used a system called TXTmob to share information. Messages, sent as events unfolded, allowed demonstrators and others to react quickly to word of arrests, police mobilizations and roving rallies. Mass texting has since become a valued tool among protesters, particularly at large-scale demonstrations.

And police and government officials appear to be increasingly aware of such methods of communication. In 2008, for instance, the New York City Law Department issued a subpoena seeking information from the graduate student who created the code for TXTmob. Still, Mr. Madison, who was released on bail shortly after his arrest, may be among the first to be charged criminally while sending information electronically to protesters about the police.

A criminal complaint in Pennsylvania accuses him of “directing others, specifically protesters of the G-20 summit, in order to avoid apprehension after a lawful order to disperse.”

“He and a friend were part of a communications network among people protesting the G-20,” Mr. Madison’s lawyer, Martin Stolar, said on Saturday. “There’s absolutely nothing that he’s done that should subject him to any criminal liability.”

A search warrant executed by the F.B.I. at Mr. Madison’s house authorized agents and officers looking for violations of federal rioting laws to seize computers and phones, black masks and clothes and financial records and address books. Among the items seized, according to a list prepared by the agents, were electronic equipment, newspapers, books and gas masks. The items also included what was described as a picture of Lenin.

Since the raid, no other charges have been filed against Mr. Madison. On Friday, Mr. Stolar argued in Federal District Court in Brooklyn that the warrant was vague and overly broad. Judge Dora L. Irizarry ordered the authorities to stop examining the seized materials until Oct. 16, pending further orders.

Mr. Stolar said that the reason for the Jackson Heights raid would not be clear until an affidavit used to secure the search warrant was unsealed. But he said that commentary among agents indicated that it was related to Mr. Madison’s arrest in Pittsburgh, where he participated in the Tin Can Comms Collective, a group of people who collected information and used Twitter to send mass text messages describing protest-related events that they observed on the streets.

There were many such events during the two days of the summit. Demonstrators marched through town on the opening day of the gathering, at times breaking windows and fleeing. And on both nights, police officers fired projectiles and hurled tear gas canisters at students milling near the University of Pittsburgh.

After Mr. Madison’s arrest, other Tin Can participants continued to send messages, now archived on Twitter’s Web site. Many of those messages tracked police movements. One read: “SWAT teams rolling down 5th Ave.” Another read: “Report received that police are ‘nabbing’ anyone that looks like a protester / Black Bloc. Stay alert watch your friends!”

But even as protesters were watching the police, it appeared that the police were monitoring the protesters’ communications.

Just after 1 p.m. on Sept. 24, a text message stated: “A comms facility was raided, but we are still fully operational please continue to submit reports.” Nine hours later, a text read: “Scanner just said be advised we’re being monitored by anarchists through scanner.”

On Sunday night Mr. Madison said that the search of his home was an effort to “stifle dissent,” and added that several groups in Pittsburgh, including the summit organizers, had used Twitter accounts to describe events related to the meetings.

“They arrested me for doing the same thing everybody else was doing, which was perfectly legal,” he said. “It was crucial for people to have the information we were sending.”

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