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Arrest Puts Focus on Protesters’ Texting

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

Police arrested demonstrators on the University of Pittsburgh campus in September during the Group of 20 meeting.

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.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/05/nyregion/05txt.html?_r=1&bl