If the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York -- or just about any other major coordinated protest effort -- is any barometer, demonstrators in St. Paul this fall will surely be using cellphones and text-messaging to plan their protests. But a battle going on in New York now might have implications on whether those visitors to St. Paul will have an expectation that the communications they transmit will remain personal.

In February, the New York City Law Department subpoenaed Tad Hirsch, an M.I.T. doctoral candidate who wrote the code for TxtMob, an SMS application used by many, including reporters -- and, possibly, police -- during RNC04. Lawyers representing 62 people arrested during the protests are seeking to reveal the contents -- including senders and recipients -- of a (virtual) mountain of text messages. Hirsch says he won't comply -- and that he no longer has the nearly four-year-old-data. His lawyer says the request is "overbroad" and a violation of the First Amendment, while Hirsch offered assurances to TxtMob users on his website "that I take their privacy seriously, and that I am taking what actions I can to protect their civil liberties."

Katrin Verclas, urging readers of the Personal Democracy Forum to donate to Hirsch's legal fund, calls the move "a blow to privacy and a chilling development to activists."

Local tech blogger Ed Kohler agrees that the subpoena, if complied with, could chill dissent here, but adds that since Hirsch's software is open-source and available as a free download, activists could easily create an anonymized version, hosted elsewhere. "I'm sure they could find someone in the world who'd be out of the reach of the St. Paul Police Department," he told me. (Or, as a commenter at Slashdot suggested, "They cannot subpoena logs that you don't keep.")

And he sees no problem with that: Hirsch created a tool for communication and shouldn't be punished for how it is used. "It's no different than creating the phone system," Kohler said. "He's just providing a platform that people are using in a variety of ways, mainly, from the looks of it, just to keep in touch with each other. It's like creating a private-label Twitter network."

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