[Ppnews] How Your Twitter Account Could Land You in Jail

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Mar 11 18:15:47 EST 2010

Mother Jones

How Your Twitter Account Could Land You in Jail

Anything you tweet could be used against you.

Power | <http://motherjones.com/toc/2010/03>March/April 2010 Issue

On the afternoon of September 24, 2009, 
Pennsylvania State Troopers, their guns drawn, 
broke down the door of room 238 of the CareFree 
Inn on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The troopers 
were acting on a search warrant related to 
protests planned for the 
summit [1]­a meeting of the heads of state of the 
world's major economies. Thousands of protesters 
had descended on the city, presenting demands 
ranging from curbs on carbon emissions to the outright abolition of capitalism.

Anticipating hordes of black-masked, 
Starbucks-smashing anarchists, the Pittsburgh 
police and the Secret Service coordinated nearly 
4,000 law enforcement officers, outfitting them 
with the latest in riot-dispersal technology. 
Crowds marching on the summit were met with 
pepper spray, stun grenades, and­for the first 
time on US 
cannons [2] that blast painful sounds as far as 
1,000 feet. But the protesters had their own 
crowd-control methods, and that's what had 
brought the state troopers to the CareFree Inn.

What they found when they broke down the door 
were a couple of middle-aged housemates from 
Queens, New York. Elliott Madison sat at a desk 
with a laptop and a cell phone. A police scanner 
lay nearby. Michael Wallschlaeger was at the 
minifridge grabbing some hummus when the police 
rushed in. According to the criminal complaint 
filed against them, the two men had been 
"communicating with various protestors, and 
protest groups...[via] internet based 
communications, more commonly known as 'Twitter'. 
The observed 'Twitter' communications were noted 
to be relevant to the direction of the movement 
of the Protestors...in order to avoid apprehension..."

Madison and Wallschlaeger were part of 
<http://tincancomms.wordpress.com/>Tin Can Comms 
Collective [3], a "collection of communication 
rebels" made up of several individuals in various 
locations across Pittsburgh. Madison's job was to 
verify information being sent in and then relay 
that to legal observers, street medics, and other 
organizers who could in turn tweet the 
information to the masses in the streets.

The raid occurred just as the protests were 
starting, but even as Madison and Wallschlaeger 
were arrested, the information flowed from the 
other tweeters without a blip. "A comms facility 
was raided, but we are still fully operational 
please continue to submit reports" stated 
<http://twitter.com/G20pgh>one subsequent tweet [4].

The real-time updates were available to anyone 
who followed the feed, allowing protesters to see 
the theater of operations and add information to 
the picture. It was as if the demonstrators had 
gotten their own helicopter. Tin Can Comms sent 
out <http://twitter.com/G20pgh>messages [4] such 
as "SWAT teams rolling down 5th Ave towards 
Schenley" and "40 cops, w/ bus, headed towards 
friendship park." The police knew they were being 
outflanked, but could do little against a 
decentralized foe: "SCANNER JUST SAID: BE ADVISED 

Madison and Wallschlaeger were charged with 
"criminal use of a communication facility," 
"possessing instruments of crime," and "hindering 
apprehension"­two felony counts and one misdemeanor.

With his long ponytail and goatee, Madison looks 
younger than his 42 years. A full-time social 
worker and self-proclaimed anarchist, he has long 
played support roles in protest movements, most 
often as a legal observer or a communications 
coordinator. He has no criminal record, but 
nevertheless had to post $30,000 in bail. 
Wallschlaeger, a 46-year-old host of a radio show 
Week in Radical History [5]," had to post $5,000.

Madison calls the arrest an attempt to "stifle 
dissent" and says his actions were "perfectly 
legal." His lawyer, Martin Stolar, calls them 
"absolutely protected speech." Madison also 
points out the irony that last June the State 
Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled 
maintenance so as not to interrupt Iranian 
protesters tweeting from the barricades.

Tehran and Pittsburgh were not the first time 
social networking and mass texts were used to 
support a large-scale protest: At the 2004 
Republican National Convention in New York City, 
thousands of protesters were organized by a 
called TXTmob [6] (pdf). This proved the new 
tools' usefulness to both activists and police, 
and they adjusted their strategies accordingly. 
TXTmob is even credited as one of the programs 
that inspired Twitter's inventors.

In Pittsburgh, the protesters' Twitter stream 
continued through the end of the G20 summit, with 
noticeable results. By the time the tear gas 
cleared, only around 190 arrests had been made, 
far fewer than at previous protests in Seattle 
and New York. The media soon forgot about the 
story­but for the two arrestees, an ordeal that 
Madison describes as "Kafkaesque" was only beginning.

At around six in the morning a week after Madison 
and Wallschlaeger posted bail, a dozen NYPD 
officers and FBI agents from the Joint Terrorism 
Task Force (JTTF) broke down the front and back 
doors of Madison's home in Queens. Guns drawn, 
they smashed in bedroom doors, and Madison, 
Wallschlaeger, their housemates, and a guest were 
left handcuffed on a couch. With helicopters 
circling overhead, agents searched the house for 
16 hours. "I asked to see the search warrant," 
says Madison, "and they basically said, 'Fuck 
you, you'll see it when we give it to you.'"

Court records show the FBI seized hundreds of 
items, including computers, hard drives, cameras, 
a World War I-era gas mask, "anarchy books," even 
an antique needlepoint of Lenin made by Madison's 
wife's grandmother. Several issues of 
Magazine [7], where Madison writes under the pen 
name Professor Calamity, were also seized, as was 
a guide on poisons (which he says he uses in the 
writing of mystery novels), a Mao Tse-tung 
refrigerator magnet, and several Buffy the 
Vampire Slayer DVDs. A poster in the living room 
of anarchist philosopher 
Bakunin [8] was left alone; "I guess they didn't 
know who he was," says Madison. At one point a 
hazmat team in full protective gear was brought 
in to investigate a jar of kombucha tea 
fermenting in the basement. Madison claims a JTTF 
agent shook his head and said, "You guys are just a bunch of hippies!"

The raid seemed to have an aimless quality. 
Madison was handed a ticket for a packet of 
fireworks, and an agent who put his hand into a 
suspected bag of marijuana discovered, painfully, 
that it was dried stinging nettles, used in 
homeopathy. "It was almost as if they thought, 
'If we take enough stuff, we'll find something to 
charge them with,'" Madison says. When he was 
finally shown the cover sheet to the search 
warrant, it provided for the seizure of any items 
"designed or intended as a means of violating the federal rioting laws."

The federal anti-riot 
USC §2101 [9]­makes it a felony to engage in 
interstate travel to "organize, promote, 
encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot." 
The statute is almost never invoked, but was used 
to indict the Chicago 7 for their 
activities [10] during the 1968 Democratic 
National Convention. That case was ultimately 
appealed and thrown out on other grounds, so the 
constitutionality of the anti-riot statute has 
never been challenged in the Supreme Court. 
Critics have long contended that it is vague, 
overbroad, and designed to suppress protest 
activity and free expression. Applied in the 
current context, "it starts to criminalize 
dissent, to conflate terrorism with 
demonstrations, and that's a very, very dangerous 
notion," says lawyer Stolar. "Essentially it's 
prosecution for a thought crime."

The fallout from the G20 protests has gotten 
curiouser and curiouser. In an unexpected move, 
the Pittsburgh charges against Madison and 
Wallschlaeger were summarily dismissed. A 
spokesman for the Allegheny County district 
attorney said that the defendants' actions "may 
have been related to more expansive activities" 
and "that until further investigative activities 
by law enforcement agencies can be completed, it 
would be more prudent to have the current charges 
withdrawn." Whatever the JTTF was up to, in other 
words, would remain secret, along with the sealed 
warrant that the Pennsylvania state troopers had used.

At around the same time, during an October 
hearing on the Queens raid, a prosecutor revealed 
that a federal grand jury had been convened to 
investigate protest activities. The affidavits 
containing the allegations that convinced a judge 
to approve the search of Madison's house also remain sealed.

Federal and grand juries are conducted in utter 
secrecy and have enormous power. The old joke is 
that they can "indict a ham sandwich," but if 
they turn up nothing, they can disappear with no 
public disclosure. Stolar doesn't know of anyone 
who has been summoned, but given the course of 
events, "I would say they're looking to go after 
what they consider to be hardcore demonstrators," 
he says. "I have very little faith in government 
anyway," says Madison, "but this is something I 
would have expected more under the Bush regime." 
A spokesman for the US attorney for the Eastern 
District of New York declined to comment on the investigation.

Madison and his housemates are trying to get on 
with their lives, not knowing when, or if, the 
other shoe will drop. "Nothing could ever happen 
and we'll never know why," says Madison, sitting 
in the living room of his Queens home, the broken 
lock on the front door still unrepaired. "We're 
anarchists," he adds, "but that's not illegal, 
and it's actually a good thing. We're not ashamed 
of it. Part of the thing with the government is 
to make you feel not only afraid but also 
ashamed. That's just not going to work with me."

Source URL: 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_G-20_Pittsburgh_summit
[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSMyY3_dmrM
[3] http://tincancomms.wordpress.com/
[4] http://twitter.com/G20pgh
[5] http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/35839
[6] http://web.media.mit.edu/~tad/pub/txtmob_chi05.pdf
[7] http://www.steampunkmagazine.com/
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakunin
[10] http://motherjones.com/media/2008/02/film-review-chicago-10

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