Criminalizing US protesters' uses of Twitter, or, how to get your home raided by the FBI

In case you missed this news over the past month or so due to the continual onslaught of digital information, there has been a disturbing---to put it lightly---incident involving Twitter, its use by protesters, and the exertion of state force. Briefly, the situation is as follows: During the recent G20 protests in Pittsburgh, PA in late September, a group of protesters were monitoring public police scanners, incoming information from people on the ground, as well as Twitter feeds, in order to post information on Twitter that would hopefully be of use to those on the ground. This tactic of having an off-site monitoring of public sources is a common one within protests. Equally common, of course, are police raids on this so-called "communication team" in order to shut them down and disrupt the means of communication, which is what happened in this case. Usually that is the end of the story. In this case, however, the two people involved (Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger) were charged under Pennsylvania law with what can only properly be called Orwellian offences: namely that they were "hindering prosecution" by posting on Twitter that an "order to disperse" had been made. According to Madison's lawyer this would be like criminalizing someone on the street telling another, "Don't go down that street; the police are rounding up protesters and arresting them".

Of course, the grand and most-horrible irony in all of this is that the US State Department, just earlier this summer had been lauding the use of Twitter in the protests in Iran and had allegedly even intervened to ask Twitter to delay regular maintenance. Yet when these same techniques are used locally, the response is to press criminal charges.

The story only gets worse; a week after their arrest (and, I should say, the state charges have now been dropped) their home in Queens, NY, an anarchist commune, was raided by the FBI, purportedly to do with "violations" of little-used anti-rioting laws (the same laws used against the Chicago 8). You can read about the incident on their solidarity blog. As far as anyone can tell, the raid is directly related to their actions in Pittsburgh. However, with the exception of a few documents that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been able to obtain, the actual reasons for the raid are still under seal. In the words of the Tortuga house members:

There is a pending federal grand jury in the Eastern District Federal Court of New York investigating somethingwhat? We dont know. We do not know how long it has been going on or if it directly involves us. We do not know what is in the sealed affidavits that are the basis for the search warrants that authorized the raid on our house. We do not know if we will be indicted by this federal grand jury or when. We do not know (although we can guess the answer) if the government will be allowed to search through our things. [This, unfortunately, has just been granted.] And so, we give you the condition of the citizen-subject experiencing the thrill of justice under Democracy! We know that we dont know anything!

I think the implications here are obvious. We have a situation where the use of a new technology is originally lauded overseas, but is criminalized when used at home. We have the preemptive use of the law and force that would aim to silence the use of this technology in the future, and where we can see that the original charges (in PA) were dropped because of the shakiness of their case. We have a situation where, as the developer of a similar tool I too am worried about the ways in which these laws can be used against me. And, most importantly for the this community, we have a situation that complicates in no uncertain terms any sort of valorization of social media tools as inherently democratic. Democracy, for whom, when, where? What types of democracy? Who has the power to define the discourse surrounding democratic use of technology? Social media tools are now being invested in by the CIA, and, as this case has shown, are being heavily monitored for activity that would fall outside of "normal" and "acceptable" channels. As users of these technologies are of course implicated. We, as scholars, should be very careful then of how much support we give to social media companies---and here I mean support in terms of our time, our looking at and engaging with other people's posts on these services, our scholarly attention where we use their trademarked terms within our work and could potentially be examining other non-commercial options (such as identi.ca and crabgrass). As young scholars and intellectuals in this area, we have the ability to help define the conversations surrounding use of these tools, to denounce heavy-handed attempts to preemptively limit their usefulness, and, through our discursive and practical work, foment the construction of alternatives.