For those undecided about whether or not citizen journalists should be protected under shield laws designed to protect print journalists, there’s news that may hasten the decision. CBS reports that on January 23rd, 2009, Philadelphia-based liberal blog Indymedia.us received a formal request from the U.S. Department of Justice requesting “all IP traffic to and from http://www.indymedia.us” on June 25, 2008. This was to include “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information.”
In short, it’s asking for a list of everyone who visited the website that day, as identifiable by their IP addresses (think of it as your computer’s address), along any other identifying information. The amount of “other identifying information” on the servers of the news site is probably no more than e-mail addresses, but if they did have any more information, such as physical addresses, names, etc, they’d be required to turn them over.
The subpoena also instructed the website to “not disclose instance of this request” without consent of the Justice Department. It would seem gag orders are harder to impose on the Internet crowd than they might think. The subpoena has since been withdrawn, and no one seems to want to talk about it.
Indymedia falls in a particularly gray area when considering journalistic merits. Rather than a publisher, it identifies itself as a “newswire,” which allows users to self-publish work – not all of which is journalistically sound. This makes the website impossible to judge as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts.
The legality of all this would be questionable at best if bloggers were treated as journos. Subpoenas served to journalists are supposed to be treated with a specific set of guidelines set up specifically because of the importance of a free press, to protect news organizations from government harassment that interferes with the reporting process.
It is also worrisome that the US Attorney General did not approve the subpoena, as guidelines for subpoenaing news organizations indicate he should have. If the DOJ won’t treat bloggers as journalists now, it stands to reason that they can expect the same treatment in the future.
While the DOJ subpoena may not in the strictest sense interfere with the reporting process, consider what would happen if the guys in black suits knocked on the door of the Nation, or the Weekly Standard, and demanded all records and identifying information of subscribers.
The actions of the DOJ make it apparent that they don’t consider bloggers journalists – which some aren’t.
But some are.
And all the while, as we debate the merits of citizen journalism, the government seems to have already recognized its potential power.