What's Illegal About Using Twitter To Organize Protests?

from the someone-please-explain dept

A bunch of folks have been sending in various versions of the story of a guy (described as an “anarchist”) who was allegedly arrested for using social media tools like Twitter to organize protesters at the recent G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. The specific charges are for “hindering prosecution,” but it seems like there must be some details missing. All around, the whole thing sounds pretty extreme. What’s illegal about organizing protesters?

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Comments on “What's Illegal About Using Twitter To Organize Protests?”

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Pjerky (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

What are you? Un-American?

But seriously, anyone that has actually paid attention to politics in the last few decades will realize that America isn’t about freedom, it is about the appearance of freedom. Take our two party system for example. This has become extra crazy recently, but it seems to me that whenever one “party” tries to pass a bill the other side unequivocally opposes it. They don’t (usually) give a sound, logical reason to appose the bill beyond it being from the other party.

Neither side as a whole really gives a crap about this country beyond keeping it alive (on life support no less). It is about appearances, lining their pockets, and maintaining the status quo. Yes there are a few good souls in government that are trying their hardest to improve this country, but most are not.

I have become very frustrated and disenfranchised with our government as a voting citizen. I keep trying to believe that someone will come along in politics and make a change, but I have lost faith in that idea.

The truth of the matter is that we have to make the change. We have to stand up and say no more. And no I am not talking about the screaming crazies at town hall meetings that haven’t actually researched the legislation they are protesting. I am talking about citizens understanding what they are protesting in detail and then trying to offer a solution while protesting what they disagree with.

I am talking about well-reasoned, logical arguments. Not mindless screaming and yelling. Though that may be too much to ask with the state of our country’s education level.

anon says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

the only way to bring true change would be to not vote. withdraw from the system do not give them your support or the appearance therof. do not join the military. do not join the police. no matter who they are at least for now no dictator or wannabe can do shit without the support or help of the people. no police or soldiers leaves no one to enforce his/her will. All governments are after all in a stage of flux toward a totalarian regime.

You are never going to get anywhere relying on the revolving door of control freaks. They say that we can’t be trusted to govern ourselves. Why then do we trust others who admit they cannot be trusted to govern us?

Geekish says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“You change a government with action.”

I agree. In my opinion, it is the sheer complacency and laziness of Americans that is hurting our country. If enough people would get off their asses and vote, it could once again be a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Maybe it wouldn’t be one I would agree with 100%, but at least I could take comfort in the fact that people actually cared again and that our gov’t was representative of all of America, and not just rich politicians and big corporations. On the other hand, if things continue to deteriorate maybe we’ll (eventually) get a revolution of sorts after all. Positive change isn’t always easy or painless.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

“You change a government with action.”

True. Partly. There must be action, but not participating in voting etc. IS action in itself. If you vote, no matter who you vote for, you are saying that you agree with the system. There are many, many people out there who agree that the system itself is broken. You can’t change the system by perpetuating it’s existence. It has die before it can be replaced.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

“If enough people would get off their asses and vote, it could once again be a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”

Are you really sure that would change anything, though? Let’s think about that for a second. If more people vote… more people vote. But the amount of people who vote does not change who the candidates for office are going to be. So you would still have the same pool of people who can be elected, with just a variation in who might get elected, possibly.

Therefore, you are saying that the real problem is that the wrong people are being elected. So is it your theory that if different people are elected, our problems are going to be solved? Really? Because if you are, I’ve got some positively royal clothes to sell you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

You know what’s upsetting is that in California Ron Paul did not appear on the presidential ballot and there was no place to write anyone in. What a joke. Every ballot should have a place to write in a vote and every wrote in vote should be counted. Oh, and don’t tell me it was there, I looked. It wasn’t there, no instructions, no nothing. There was no way to write in a vote.

RevWillie says:

Re: Re: You have to remember,

ok, Anonymous, America is not about democracy, it is a Republic. As a Republic we have the 2nd amendment to the Republic to prevent Politicians from taking the 1st amendment. We are a tolerant group of 50 States, normally, but when the misinformed start spouting about tyranny and pretending that anyone who questions their word are the bad guys, being tolerant leaves the building with Elvis. Iraq was nice example, for over eight years, we tried to be tolerant. We asked politely in the UN and out of the UN. As 50 States of a Republic we can take spewing tyranny so far. Saddam Hussain is dead. So are his womanizing murdering male children. Going back further, On December 7th, 1941 we let Tolerancy leave with Elvis and spent 4 years convincing the Imperial Japanese what a bad idea they had going. Today, Japan is in the World Markets and is a player. China, Russia, and the Soviet Republics are still pushing a lot of Tyranny around, put playing in the World Markets. And OUR Arab cousins, doing what they’ve done for over 2000 years, “thats the way we have always done it” mentality. You can’t get to the Moon by doing what you’ve always done for over 2000 years.

The Best Manager Evah says:

To #1

Tell you what, give me your name, and I will send you out to Iran for a campaign. It will be the safest campaign, and you’ll make some good money. Hell, I’ll insure it will seem like you’re not doing anything. All I need is your name, and we’ll send out a helicopter to pick you up. I’ll let you make some good money and you can give me 10% because I am your manager.

Dale Sheldon says:

Re: Re: Varying levels of 'protest'

I think #6 is on to something.

The “solution” would be encrypted radio communications for the officers; to go along with all the other military-grade hardware.

But you’ve gotta admit, the tweet that said “The police are following twitter streams”, the circularity has got to make you smile.

The “solution” would be encrypted twitter streams…

Brooks (profile) says:

Re: Re: Varying levels of 'protest'

Note that flashing your lights to warn other drivers is of varying legality, depending on your state: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headlight_flashing#United_States

So that may not be your best argument. Also, do you have any links to info about why the police were looking for the protesters? You seem pretty sure that nothing illegal had occurred, but none of the articles I’ve found have addressed that point.

You’re positive there was no vandalism, etc? Can you document? It still wouldn’t change the distinction between questioning the police conduct and questioning the legality of interfering with that conduct, even if it was inappropriate. But it would give more context.

Greg says:


You aren’t very up on the modern history of protests in America… if a group plans something illegal, such as civil disobedience, it is common for the police to charge lots of people with conspiracy to commit a crime, which frequently has a penalty far in excess of the crime. Thoreau would have loved it.

CAS says:


I don’t think the issue is as cut and dried as you’re trying to present it. Elliot Madison was using Twitter to help protesters avoid the police, or what may be construed as evading arrest.

Using Twitter to “organize” is different from evading the police. At the end of it though, I’m with #6.

That said, I’m sure they’ll figure out some way to bring in some esoteric anti-mafia law because he was using a radio communications network to organize criminal activity – which would really be a shame.

Kevin says:

Re: Questionable

This is correct. There was a nice piece on this on NPR this afternoon, and apparently there are several charges beyond “hindering prosecution”. Apparently they are claiming that he was using Twitter to try to help people who were committing illegal acts of protest (and not all protests were illegal) evade the police.

The person providing legal analysis was a former Federal prosecutor, and he seemed to be on the fence as to whether anything would stick. Obviously there are first ammendment issues, and the way that he put it was that there is a very fine line between between someone saying “there is a police car coming down the street” and someone saying “the police are getting ready to break down your door…hurry up and flush your stash.” I’m not convinced that there should be a difference. It seems to me that both should be protected, but there is an argument that can be made that you’re abetting a criminal.

Of course, we live in a country that sentenced Dr. Mudd to life in prison for setting a broken leg.

thomas (profile) says:


Anyone who thinks that you can say anything you want in twitter is draming. The spooks, be they CIA or FBI or Homeland Security do pretty much what they want. If they think you sneezed at them, they feel they are perfectly justified in giving you a nice one way ticket for a fabulous vacation in Gitmo, with water massage daily. In the U.S. they say you can speak your mind, while in Iran they say you can’t. End result is the same if you annoy the government agencies: you get shot or sent to a concentration camp.

Martin Cohn (profile) says:

Relaying police traffic is the problem, not Twitter

There can be a lot of talk about what should or should not be illegal, but Title 47 US Code, Section 605 (http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/cybercrime/47usc605.htm) lays it out plainly that it’s illegal to “divulge the…existence, contents, substance, purport, effect, or meaning thereof, except through authorized channels of transmission or reception, (1) to any person other than the addressee, his agent, or attorney, (2) to a person employed or authorized to forward such communication to its destination.”

In other words you can listen to a scanner, but relaying the messages via Twitter, SMS or smoke signals is against Federal law.

Urza9814 says:

Re: Relaying police traffic is the problem, not Twitter

Bullshit. This was local police radio traffic. That section specifically applies to “any interstate or foreign communication” That still shouldn’t be illegal, but it has absolutely no bearing on this case as far as I can tell.

If such things were illegal, then websites like radioreference.com would have been shut down long ago. I was listening to the G20 police communication too, streaming live over the internet. There’s absolutely no difference (at least in terms of a law like that) between a machine converting it to an internet stream and sending it out and a person doing the same conversion and transmission.

Martin Cohn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Relaying police traffic is the problem, not Twitter

The police are licensed by the FCC to transmit, hence the federal involvement.

Even if the protesters had listened themselves, the act also states

“No person having received any intercepted radio communication or having become acquainted with the contents, substance, purport, effect, or meaning of such communication (or any part thereof) knowing that such communication was intercepted, shall divulge or publish the existence, contents, substance, purport, effect, or meaning of such communication (or any part thereof) or use such communication (or any information therein contained)for his own benefit or for the benefit of another not entitled thereto.”

So even if the protesters had brought their own scanners AND used in the comission of offenses, they’d have been out of luck also.

Urza9814 says:

Re: Re: Re: Relaying police traffic is the problem, not Twitter

Again, that section only applies to interstate or foreign communications. Just because they’re licensed by the FCC that doesn’t mean their communications are magically interstate. Their communications were confined to the city of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh exists entirely within the state of Pennsylvania. There was no interstate broadcasting, therefore that section of the code does not apply.

Anonymous Coward says:

the article leans against the arrested persons to make you think that it’s ok to arrest them because they’re anarchists, leninists, marxists, and crazy (psychiatric hospital).

the fact of the matter is, it is not illegal to organize a protest. and more importantly, it is not illegal to use twitter to organize a protest.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Executives who work for entities that are “too big to fail” should have a strict limit on how much they can make since if they do fail the government will simply bail them out. But of course they are anarchists, they want to take as much money as they can.

Pharmaceutical corporations should have price caps on the drugs that they sell since the government grants them patents and they should also be audited by independent agencies to see how much they really spend on research and development and how much they spend on other stuff to ensure that the patents they are granted are justified. This information should be disclosed to the public. But of course pharmaceutical corporations are anarchists, they get to charge whatever they want with the monopolies that the government grants them. At the same time they are tyrants, they have government sanctioned monopolies that restrict competition. They are basically tyrant anarchists: they are anarchists and want no laws to the extent that it helps them and they are tyrants to the extent that it helps them.

Cable companies, broadband services, and those that broadcast on airwaves should have a limit on the amount of commercials they can endorse since it’s the government that grants them control over these broadcasting mediums and limits competition. But of course they are anarchists and can put as many commercials they want. They are tyrant anarchists, tyrants in that they control who can and can’t use the airwaves and who does and does not have rights of way to build new infrastructure, and anarchists in that they put as many commercials as they want and charge astronomical prices for poor service.

Oh, and cities that put cameras everywhere are anarchists in that they do whatever they want against the will of the public and the government is turning into an anarchist government because they pass laws as they please with no regard for what the people want. The people are under tyranny, but the big corporations and the government are anarchists.

They want to throw the word “anarchist” around but they don’t want laws that help the public, they only want laws that help them. They are anarchists to the extent that it helps them and they are tyrants to the extent that it helps them.

Withersteen says:

RE: #1

I believe what AC in comment #1 is referring to are reports about the recent elections in Iran which made it to the Western news media via Twitter. See the following:

From the New York Times:

After all, to judge by what’s written on blogs and Twitter accounts by Web-savvy Iranians who speak English, that part of the country’s population seems to skew quite heavily against the current government, which owns Press TV and clearly exerts an influence over its reports.

From CNN

Bloody attacks and midnight arrests, combined with a regime growing more technologically savvy, have begun stemming the flow of online information from dissidents in Iran, activists and human rights officials say….After Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory, networking Web sites in Iran have been blocked, and reports say phone lines have been disconnected or tapped and alleged government spies have infiltrated protester sites…But opposition supporters have been warning each other against using text messages, believing the government is monitoring them, according to many messages posted on Twitter.

There are many more such examples. Those who criticized #1 (#’s 2, 3, 4, 5, 8), I hope you were being sarcastic. Or else you are just xenophobic, racist haters. Or just plain ignorant.

HolaJohnny (profile) says:

I have never been a protester to get that out of the way

But call me nuts if this isn’t authority stifling rights. I’m not saying protests are always within our rights (wait for it) but I think anyone in the US should be able to organize a legal protest with out being rounded up based on twitter or any other form of communication. Now if this was a situation where it organizing for actual crime IE looting, rioting, violent protest. I get it, I agree to a point. But if its a legal protest this is a broad attempt to silence the masses and call me whatever you will. I’m ready to join the movement just because I want my right to express the opinion of the people to show a dissenting view. I guess I missed where it was illegal to keep an eye on the police they same way they track and keep an eye on citizens regularly.

Anonymous Coward says:

It is one thing to use a forum like Twitter to announce and promote a rally. The article suggests, however, that the individual here was using the service to help persons who may have been breaking the law avoid the police by monitoring police movements. While admittedly a gross exaggeration, it does seem somewhat akin to informing a bank robber to “Turn left, the cops are on your tail!”

Brooks (profile) says:


Hey, Mike? When you frame it as “arrested for using Twitter to organize a protest”, of course it sounds insane, and you’re going to get all of the comments you see here about America and Iran and whatnot.

But when you read the story, and the related stories, you’ve got a guy in a hotel room using police scanners and Twitter for the express purpose of helping people who knew they were wanted by police evade capture.

Now, whether the police should be arresting protesters (my vote is “sometimes”*) is another issue. But given that the police were indeed attempting to arrest some people, how is it not “hindering prosecution” to help them escape?

* Obviously, people shouldn’t be arrested for mere protesting, but I’m less ok with illegal activities done in the course of protest (see: property damage, assault, etc).

Josh (profile) says:

Re: Ugh


I’m so glad that someone else has actually read the article in question. This is one of the rare moments that I disagree with Mike. I saw this article yesterday, and I felt the same way as most of the other commenters just from the headline, then I read the story.

This guy wasn’t using twitter to organize the protest. He was using it to help people that were told to disperse to evade the police and keep doing what they were doing. Doing this any other way would also be illegal. It’s called obstruction of justice. It’s the same thing as if you saw the police in pursuit of someone on TV and saw that they were coming your way, you then realized that it was your friend driving the car, so you decided that you wanted to help him. So you jump in your car and start following the pursuit and get him on the phone and tell him where to turn and when to turn, eventually helping him to escape.

That may be a bit extreme, but it is what this guy was doing. And he knew it. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what was going on. He heard the order to dispese, especially since he had the scanners at his disposal, and choose to keep telling his friends how to escape the police.

Not a good thing to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

The law is the law sometimes

He *was* breaking the law technically. Aside from having police scanners and other equipment its generally a no-no to have, he was using twitter to help protesters evade lawful “dispersion” orders.

Things are kind of a gray area for me as to what happened at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, but this does make sense.

Brooks (profile) says:

Re: Re: The law is the law sometimes

Actually, he’d still be in the wrong if he were at the top of the building with a bull-horn and pair of binoculars. Please read the article: he wasn’t “organizing” protesters, he was warning them of police activity so they could evade arrest. You try that with a bull-horn and see how that goes.

There are two issues here:
1) Should the police have been trying to apprehend the protesters in question?
2) Given that there police *were* trying to apprehend the protesters in question, what are the legal implications of helping them evade arrest?

Lots of people are reacting strongly to (1), with the implication that if the police were in the wrong there, it should be OK to obstruct them in (2). But that’s not the way it works in the U.S. We rely on the courts (and sometimes police oversight committees) to determine police wrongdoing. You don’t get to say “I’m pretty sure that they didn’t commit a crime, but the police are after them, so I’ll help them get away.” Doesn’t matter if it’s bull-horn or Twitter then.

Without knowing more about the protest, I’ve got no opinion on (1) here. Maybe the police were in the wrong in trying to track and/or apprehend the protesters. But that’s not the question here. In the actual question, this guy was clearly (and with a lot of effort and expense on his part) interfering with the police.

JohnForDummies (profile) says:

It wouldn’t be illegal to organize protesters, if you were to say “Meet at this spot at 3:00”.

But now, let’s say the protesters are already at a location, and begin throwing rocks and bottles at police. And then begin rolling dumpsters into traffic and at property. And then when the police move in grab those protesters who are unlawfully destroying property you have someone telling them how to evade police capture — That’s aiding and abetting.

Allegedly the guy who was arrested had in his possession a pound of liquid mercury, tire spikes, and ammunition. http://gothamist.com/2009/10/05/fbi_raids_queens_home_in_g20_protes.php If this is true, then it would be hard to argue that he had a “Peaceful demonstration” in mind.

Just because someone is protesting, that does not give them the right to destroy property, harm anyone, or create a full-on riot. The small percentage of protesters who do engage in these types of activities should face prosecution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here is a question… did the police have specific warrants that explicitly stated the names of the individuals to be arrested, or was it that they witnessed the commission of a crime and they were arresting anyone they saw there?

If it was the latter, then this is a non issue… they had no idea who to arrest or who was involved. If it was the former, then I can see this being an issue.

Brooks (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Um. Reframe your argument with “probably cause.” Warrants are issued by judges in response to requests from prosecuting attorneys. When police react to crimes in progress (or the suspicion thereof), the standard is probable cause.

In this case, we don’t know enough to say what the police were acting on. Mere dislike of protesters? Possibly. A string of broken windows and vandalized cars? Possibly. Who knows?

But regardless, “they shouldn’t have been doing that” is never going to be a legal defense for obstructing police efforts. It’s a fine rationale for civil disobedience, but CD implies an acceptance of prosecution.

anymouse (profile) says:

It's the delima of Scylla and Charybdis or a Rock and a Hard Place

Choosing between the ‘lesser’ of 2 evils, is still choosing EVIL. Our system of government is horribly broken and since it is self governing, it just keeps getting worse. Things won’t get better until there is serious change in this country, and I don’t just mean a ‘better’ candidate throws his hat into the ring.

Anyone out there have a ‘regular’ job where you only have to ‘work’ a 2-4 year term and then you get a guaranteed salary for the rest of your life (equal to what you made while working, with guaranteed increases)? When we let the ‘elected’ officials govern themselves (by passing laws that impact only their select group), does anyone really have to ask why things are messed up?

I don’t have a solution at this time, but I personally feel that anyone WILLING to be in politics, shouldn’t be allowed to be in politics, because they are probably there for the wrong reason. I’m not saying that we would get better results with a ‘political draft’ of qualified candidates who served a limited term and then went back to their regular life, but at least we wouldn’t have the dregs of society (ie. those who’s only ambition is power and money) running the country.

The Tinfoil must be giving me a headache today…

Bombalistic says:

Look at the legal aftermatch of the chaos in gothenburg, sweden 2001:

“One of the most noticed cases is the so called information central, which was stormed by Nationella insatsstyrkan during the first day of the summit. A total of eight persons (five men, three women) were sentenced to long prison sentences after having sent out SMS texts urging people to go to Hvitfeldtska gymnasiet in connection with the police shutdown of the school. The case attracted much attention among other things because the prosecutor used circular arguments: activists in other trials were accused for having contact with the criminal information central, while the people of the information central were accused of having contacts with criminals on the outside.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6teborgskravallerna

Ben (profile) says:

What's illegal about organizing protesters?

Doing it online.

Something must be copyrighted, some patent infringed, a trademark infringed or perhaps someone got bullied a bit. Please save us from hurting ourselves because some heartless #$@ is insulting our sensitivities. We must be losing money too because of this. Help me!

This protest against copyright is copyrighted.

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