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U.S. Attorney Sought Readership Information from Internet News Site

November 13, 2009

By Scott Horton
from Harper’s

CBS News reports that on January 23—days after Barack Obama’s inauguration, but before his designated senior team had taken charge at the Justice Department—federal prosecutors in Indiana issued a subpoena to IndyMedia, a Philadelphia-based Internet news service.

In a case that raises questions about online journalism and privacy rights, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a formal request to an independent news site ordering it to provide details of all reader visits on a certain day.

The grand jury subpoena also required the Philadelphia-based Indymedia.us Web site “not to disclose the existence of this request” unless authorized by the Justice Department, a gag order that presents an unusual quandary for any news organization.

The subpoena demanded “all traffic to and from” the IndyMedia website on a specific date: June 25, 2008. Moreover, IndyMedia was threatened with obstruction of justice charges if it failed to comply promptly with the subpoena. IndyMedia responded by turning the matter over to attorneys from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who acted on its behalf. They objected to the subpoena on a variety of technical grounds and also noted its probable illegality. EFF also noted that, acting consistently with EFF guidelines designed to thwart government snooping, IndyMedia did not keep the sorts of records the government was requesting. The U.S. attorney involved, Bush-era holdover Timothy Morrison, responded by withdrawing the subpoena. more

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