Pittsburgh police shocked the tech world last month when they arrested protesters at the U.S. G20 meeting for allegedly criminal Tweets. Their attorney says the two men were merely relaying publicly available information. Now the courts will have to decide: Is Tweeting an offense?
Martin Stoler’s statement in defense of Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger is that they were merely “passing on information that the police [had] put out publicly.” That info included what routes protesters were suggested to take, where police had barred the protest from going and so on–basic organizational information that helped keep the protesters in action and on the move. Stoler’s key point is that this is information that the police had already made publicly available, meaning all that Madison and Wallschlaeger had done was relay that information with real-time precision to the protesters–an act that simply can’t be seen as criminal.
But police argue the men were using scanners to monitor emergency services and police transmissions, using “maps and computers” to coordinate the information and then relay “the movements and actions of law enforcement … in order to avoid apprehension.”
And that’s where this all gets a bit murky. If the two suspects were merely relaying information that was publicly available to any protesters with Twitter on their phone, then the criminal argument falls down. Stoler argues possession of a scanner is irrelevant, as the police info was on the Internet already. Twitter, by design, is supposed to be for this mode of information broadcast, and if law-breaking protesters (which made up only a fraction of the protest group) listened in, then surely that’s not Madison and Wallschlaeger’s fault. By their own argument, the police would themselves be guilty of furnishing protesters with information about how to avoid arrest. And the Guardian had a live feed of protester Tweets during G20 demonstrations in London this past April, so was the newspaper guilty of the same infraction?
Details of legal scanner use are cloudy, and they vary depending on whether you’re using one in your home or while mobile. If Madison and Wallschlaeger were, in fact, legally listening in to a scanner at home but then Tweeting that info out to people using mobile phones, is it illegal by extension?
It’s all going to get very complex in court, and all sorts of computer data will likely be pulled–records of police Net publications, the Tweet archive and so on. If the two suspects were in direct communication–using direct message Tweets or @username messages to protesters who were at those exact moments fugitives and sending them information that was only available via scanner–then you could argue they were indeed aiding criminals to elude arrest. But that’s likely to be difficult to prove.
Is all this a case of law enforcement getting in a low-tech tizzy about new communications technology they don’t understand? One thing’s for sure–police forces and the authorities in the U.S. don’t want to be tarred with the same brush that Iranian authorities were when they cracked down on the Twitter-organized protests after the Iranian elections.