Sunday, February 15, 2009

Help wanted - A chilling landmark for civil liberties in the UK



On Monday 9th February this week a friend and work colleague found police at his door at 7am in the morning. They searched through his house, took all of his computer equipment and then arrested him. He was then grilled for several hours before finally being released on bail.

His "crime"? Allegedly he has been arrested under "suspicion of incitement", or more specifically, "inciting people knowing a crime is going to be committed". This is under sections 44, 45 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007. The fact of the matter is though, he has done absolutely nothing wrong and is simply being set up as the fall-guy for someone else's misdeeds. And all of this on the basis of some painful abuse of recent legislation.

My friend rents co-located server space to a number of customers. One of them happens to be Indymedia. Activists involved in SHAC (animal liberation group - Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) had used Indymedia to discuss and post information. A Judge involved in legal proceedings against some SHAC members, a one Justice Neil Butterfield had his personal contact details posted up on Indymedia twice by anonymous users. Shortly after the contact details had gone up, they were deleted by Indymedia administrators. All of this was completely unknown to the hosting provider as - unsurprisingly - his role is to rent hosting space, not moderate user activities on the various sites that use it.

Kent Police (being the police force involved in the recent SHAC investigation and trials) decided to investigate however. Unable to track down the posters of the Judge's details they then decided to go for the person providing the hosting space for the site. Indymedia, as a matter of stated policy, on sites across the globe, do not keep IP logs. Despite a common assumption to the contrary, they are not obliged to either (and given the current climate and government attitudes, this *could* become law at some point). Police physically seized the server in January.

It was at this point my friend started receiving hostile, accusatory phone calls from Kent police, and when he decided to contact me for advice (for what little I could give). It was clear from what he related that the officers involved initially had absolutely no clue about internet, or server technologies. They simply could not understand that without a log of IP addresses, they could not track down the anonymous posters from the information on the server's hard drive (never mind trying to explain to them that IP addresses, even if they had them, can be faked....).

I said then, as I also believe now, that the police have absolutely no case against him whatsoever.

This will not stop them pressing ahead however as it is clear that they're desperate for a scapegoat, especially as they have invested plenty of time and energy in this now (Kent police came all the way up to Sheffield in order to question him, though South Yorkshire police carried out the actual arrest, search and confiscation of property).

He said the officers have wisened up since then though, at least those who were interrogating him in Sheffield had some smarts. They're determined to make this stick, with or without evidence. It appears they're engaging in something another friend of mine has been on the receiving end of recently - what he calls "evidence construction".

This is potentially a landmark case for all of our civil liberties. Despite there being no causal chain of culpability, it appears my friend is subject to having his house turned upside down, property taken, arrest and worse for mere association. And it is important to spell out exactly what association means here: He has never, I repeat never, attended any meetings, or had admin access or any involvement with the indymedia users and contributors, never mind the animal rights activists. His only association has been to rent out co-located hosting space to multiple users, one of whom happen to be indymedia.

The case the police want to make appears to be based now on this vague woolly idea of association, and psychological support to a cause (as in, you personally hold the opinion that certain activists are doing a good thing, irrespective of whether you act on that). They are probably going to try presenting this as one instance of a pattern of sympathetic support to people they consider lethal to our national security. Just to be clear, the description of Indymedia they laid before him made it sound like the nation's terrorist network centre (who knew they'd been looking in at GCHQ?) - people bent on death and destruction. Well, that's not the Indymedia I know, nor I'm sure many of you reading this. It's almost as if the police have constructed their own phantom monster to justify complete overreaction. Our upright and honourable police and security services would never do that though would they?




As an aside, it's also worth noting that while the coverage in the Register says that the RIPA legislation was not applied (e.g. to demand the keys for encrypted data), it is also an offence to reveal that they have been demanded, so we don't know for sure either way. I think you know which way it is likely to be though.....

Bigger issue

This is a bigger, and separate issue to animal rights activists and to Indymedia. The fact is that he has been tied to a crime using zero evidence. Even if he had had casual association in person with anyone running indymedia, this still would have been highly spurious, however, he has not even had this much contact. The police want blood though, and who can forget that they have "targets" to meet. Activists are easy targets and if they can't get the activists they get innocent people who provide business services to said activists. Perhaps they might also want to arrest staff at the local supermarket for selling them food, as they might be "inciting people knowing a crime is going to be committed".

Not only does the police "case" rest on ignorance of technical issues surrounding the internet, it appears that Kent police also require training in epistemology. My friend can't predict the future after all. Who knows what comments anyone might post in response to this post I'm writing for example. Am I to be held culpable for them? Is the - otherwise invisible - web host of the server this is being displayed from culpable for what I *might* say? The whole affair is farcical beyond belief. And the fact that it has even got this far is deeply worrying and directly implies that the police's main interest is in sowing the seeds of fear amongst those of us who use the internet to speak out. It's something that concerns ALL of us.

The implication is that sites have to be monitored constantly and a train of accountability has to exist for every single comment online. This is something the government (and the ignorant members of the police who support them) would dearly love of course. So while there is a dearth of precedents to rush through such legislation, they'll happily construct an "incident" from scratch. Without being hyperbolic at all it is clear we're careening into police state territory here.

As others have already noted, it is entirely possible that the posters of the Judge's information got his contact details from easily accessible sources, including 192.com and the local library. A great many people, police included it seems, do not realise how much information about us exists and is easy to legally access with a little effort. (By all means sign up to 192.com, buy £5 of credits and do searches on yourself and friends via the electoral roll - you might be shocked)

The comments on the Register are well worth a look to highlight the idiocy of this case. Here are a few choice ones:

"incitement to communicate? wow, we really are screwed. When will they pull up the BBC directors for inviting people to comment on HYS when related to contentious issues?"


"Can I now hold the Department for Transport responsible for assisting me to get a speeding ticket?"


"Suspicion of incitement" is pure Thought Crime law. Now we don't even need to commit the crime, just thinking about committing a crime is enough to be punished.

Using this law, they could even take down newspapers and news web sites (e.g. TheRegister!). For example, the Guardian paper has a whole section on the growing Surveillance State. This could very easily be considered "suspicion of incitement" to protest against the government. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/surveillance

The UK is no longer heading towards a Police State. We are now in a Police State. From here on out, it just gets ever more scary. This law is the end of Democracy as we can no longer speak freely, as they can now choose any Thought Crime they wish to punish and so silence."



How to help
My friend does not wish to be identified; his main concern is protecting himself and his family. However, he has given me his blessing to help publicise his plight and solicit any help that people may be willing to give. At the moment this takes one particular form:

Building a counter-case
- Initially my friend has asked that we help him prepare his case for court should it go that far. The police's case is likely to rely on bamboozling the judge (and jury if there is one), on technical issues that they themselves are not exactly au fait with. My friend has had a longstanding interest in creating free, or cheap infrastructure for communications networking. He has, for a long time, been involved in projects to help local communities harness technology for communications and community building purposes. The police will make the case that this is all about the evil Indymedia.

Instead, the intention is to create a dossier of case studies and examples of this kind of technology (especially that used / given freely or cheaply) for positive uses, even political ones, that have nothing to do with Indymedia. I've started collating a few myself, including for example, the Rock The Vote campaigns in the U.S., Shoreditch digital bridge etc.

You can help tremendously if you can give other examples. Links, newspaper articles etc are all good. Please post any up, or get in touch with me. What might be particularly useful is if anyone involved in such a project would be willing to testify as an expert witness, identifying the "postive" side to such technologies. As ridiculous as the police's characterisation of Indymedia is, that is the case we have to answer.


Publicising the case
- It would be a very good thing to publicise this case as far as possible, especially if it looks like it may go the distance in court. It's an abhorrent abuse of the law and due process amongst other things. Please blog about this, complain to the police, write to the local papers, your MP etc.

I Have written to Liberty, as a member, to request that they take up his case. If you want you can write to them too. Contact details here.

For articles to reference, the two best articles are:
Spyblog (which also gives a comprehensive critique of the legislation being used here).
The Register article is also good.

Employment issues
- We all know how it works in this country now. The accusation is enough to screw your life, regardless of evidence or the circumstances of the case. Innovations like the National Employee Dismissal database will see to that for posterity. This man has done nothing wrong at all and is blatantly being framed on the basis of some very sketchy interpretation of the law. This may only be an issue if it goes to court though, and for now he has asked that we do not lobby his employer should they decide to find prejudice against him on this case.

Please help - you could be on the receiving end of this next.

As Spyblog have said:

"What happened to freedom of speech on the internet or even in the mainstream media ?

Who will be next ?

If the mainstream media and the UK political blogosphere and the UK telecomms and Internet Service Provider industries do not kick up a huge fuss about this case, then the terrorists will have won, by provoking this morally weak Government into
destroying our fundamental human right of free speech."


19 comments:

Old Holborn said...

I'll be watching to see what evidence comes forth.

Until it is presented, the best we can do is reserve judgement

Katabasis said...

That's fair enough OH as you don't know the person in question.

I thought you might be concerned at the Police's interpretation of the law and the fact that there is simply no causal chain of culpability between him and the anonymous posters though.

Anonymous said...

Don't know much about computers but will send some cash if you have a place to send it(sorry-no credit card)

Flax said...

"the intention is to create a dossier of case studies and examples of this kind of technology (especially that used / given freely or cheaply) for positive uses"

Does this have a home on the net yet? If it does not I suggest someone start a wiki so that the information can be in one place and no one is duplicating work.
I will volunteer to set this up if it has not already been done.

David Mery said...

You should get in touch with the team at Tactical Tech (they're doing the NGO in a box. Also Ken Banks from FrontlineSMS may be relevant/helpful.

Best wishes of success for your friend.

br -d

Katabasis said...

Many thanks for the comments folks, and for helping to spread this story far and wide.

Anonymous - I'm very touched by your offer of money. Fortunately it hasn't got to that point yet, I think everyone's hoping it doesn't even make the courts.

Flax - I'd be very grateful if you have the time and energy to start up a wiki for the 'counter-dossier'. Many thanks for your offer.

David - thanks for the links, I'll have a look and get in touch.

Flax said...

I have a blank-slate wiki up and running at http://www.commsunity.org/wiki/.
If you have anything you have already written feel to free to add it, hopefully I'll get a chance to write something after work tommorow.

Interested bystander said...

I suppose his best bet is full co-operation. If he has no editorial control of the site, hasn't posted stuff or indeed can't post stuff then he cannot be culpable for content. Also relevant would be evidence of good faith on behalf of Indymedia -that is to say if they can show that they acted swiftly to remove material clearly inappropraiate this will help - Times will be important here, a couple of hours is swift - anything over 8 and the defence of reasonable behaviour looks very weak.

Katabasis said...

Flax, thank you so much for starting that wiki page.

I will add more information shortly.

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Katabasis said...

For anyone wondering why so many comments were deleted they were all spam, linking to things like 'payday loans' companies etc.