The Police force’s intimidation tactics; fitwatch.org.uk, forward intelligence teams and Millbank student protest.

It is barely a week after the student protest at Millbank in London.  An event which the media tells us has polarised views on how to achieve effective protest; in reality, I suspect most people are unperturbed with a few windows having been broken at the Conservative’s HQ.  The main complaint seems to be of a fire extinguisher being thrown off the roof, which while dangerous and tremendously stupid is hardly characteristic of the 50,000 people protesting.

Irrespective of one’s view on the rights-and-wrongs of how the protest unfolded, there has been a more disturbing development.  For some years now, the Police in different parts of the country have deployed FITs – so called “Forward Intelligence Teams” –  at public demonstrations and protests.  The purpose of these FITs are to overtly photograph people at the protests; the photographs are potentially then retained by the Police for use at future protests, or effecting subsequent investigation.  Having your photograph taken and kept on record merely for attending a public event is criminalising the act of peaceful protest, and in my own view is both morally reprehensible and legally dubious.  Legal challenges have already been raised against this practice, as summarised in this wikipedia entry.

A campaign group, Fitwatch, justly oppose this type of policing and attend protests and demonstrations with cameras themselves photographing the Police photographing the protesters.  Unfortunately, this has at times resulted in what can only be described as a violent and disturbing response from the Police: in 2009, two women were handcuffed, restrained at the legs, held round the throat and had Police manipulate pressure points on their neck all for the trivial reason of asking the collar number of four Police officers (which appears to be a matter of policy rather than law).  An article and disturbing video of this incident is available on the Guardian’s website.

Recently, an even more concerning development seems to have occurred: the Police asked for Fitwatch’s website, fitwatch.org.uk, to be taken offline and it was so done with no court order, no injunction/interdict and no warrant – in fact it seems a letter from Will Hodgeson, an acting detective inspector at C011, seemed to suffice.  The Guardian newspaper has had sight of this letter as outlined in an article here.  The hosting provider is putatively named as justhost.com which is based in the US although the IP whois returns that netblock as belonging to “Bandcon”.  Removing content from the internet without any judicial oversight is to say the least disconcerting, circumvents any legal protections and has not required the Police to prove their allegations; more importantly it rides roughshod over freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

In the meantime, the original content has been replicated on blogs across the internet essentially rendering the takedown ineffective… well, for those that know why the site is inactive.  While I suspect most hosting providers would be more robust in their response and demand a court order – which under the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgements Act should be enforceable in the US – it will likely become the situation whereby people wanting to ensure their content is available will have to resort to either “bullet proof” hosting providers, or use other technologies similar to say Freenet.  It seems Fitwatch have temporarily moved to Facebook, here.  Will the MET write the same letter to Facebook?

ETA 17th November 2010 2:18PM: It seems their website is back online although it points to the same IP address as last night; perhaps they had arranged new hosting yesterday had changed their DNS A record at that point.

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