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Twitter Mobilization Lands Queens Man in FBI Trouble

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, October 5 2009

Well, this is interesting. The New York Times is reporting that the FBI is pursuing charges against Queens man for, it seems, posting Twitter updates about police actions during G20 Summit protests in Pittsburgh:

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."

Actually, as a question of law -- rather than of organizing tactics -- this turns out to be not all that interesting in most ways but extremely interesting in one: what role Elliot Madison, which is the man's name, thought he was serving. If you're using Twitter as a broadcasting medium (and assuming you've made your Twitter stream public) it's not immediately obvious how it differs from coordinating a political action using fliers or the web or the radio, which are all kinda old hat at this point. But what if instead your main function in this communications ecosystem is to retweet information, acting as a relay point? Does that change your responsibilities and liabilities? If you have 10,000 Twitter followers versus 100 Twitter followers, does that make your actions merely different in degree, or different in kind? Those aren't necessarily distinctions the law recognizes yet. But if law enforcement keeps up monitoring Twitter -- and let's face it, they'd be silly not to -- they're questions that courts might soon have to start considering.

(For us here at techPresident, this story is particularly poignant: it was the very similar use of Twitter to mobilize protesters during the RNC '08 protests that inspired the Twitter Vote Report project we helped lead.)

(Photo credit: whatleydude)