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When Posting a Website Link is a Crime

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You're probably not familiar with Barrett Brown.

As news coverage of surveillance, internet intrusion and the government's intense battle against privacy and privileged communications seeps into the public consciousness, the names Julian Assange, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden are almost household terms. But Brown's name, the government's case against him, and the implications that flow from it are seldom reported and, as a result, not well known.

That is itself a crime. The Texas-based journalist is sitting in jail awaiting trial on three different indictments and facing a sentence of over a century if convicted in a case so outrageous and frightening it rivals the cases and plights of those better-known information distributors.

Brown is charged, essentially, with doing something everyone (including myself right now) does on the Internet:  he posted a link.


Barrett Brown: What was his crime? by Alphaville Herald

Barrett Brown: What was his crime? by Alphaville Herald


The Brown case raises all kinds of issues around freedom of expression and information, but, perhaps most importantly, it uncovers a deeper and more dangerous aspect of the Obama Administration's information policy. Brown's case illustrates that, in addition to targeting the use of the Internet for spreading information, the administration is targeting the very act of information distribution. That includes the work that journalists routinely do, but it also includes the information sharing you and I do on the Internet almost as a reflex.

It also reveals a world the government definitely doesn't want you to know about: the murky, possibly sometimes illegal, world of inter-connection between the government and a network of secretive information and cyber-security companies. That was the world Brown broke into and that, in the end, is probably his "crime".

So intense is the government's desire to keep this under wraps that on September 4 federal prosecutors convinced the federal court to impose a gag order that forbids Brown, who is currently in prison but actively writing from there, from saying or writing anything about his case that isn't in the public record. In short, he can't tell us what he actually did and why: the information we all need to know.

Barrett Brown is a well-known and respected journalist whose articles have appeared in all kinds of publications. He has written a well-regarded book called "Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny" and is regarded as a solid authority on surveillance and people's rights.

He also is a good example of the "activist journalist" who uses reporting as a tool for organizing and resistance. He was, for a time, the most visible "spokesperson" for the progressive hacker collective "Anonymous," although he apparently gave that role up before his "crimes," and at least some of the Anonymous participants were happy when he did. And in 2010, he formed an online collective named Project PM to investigate documents unearthed by Anonymous and others.

That's where the troubling story starts.

In 2011, Brown began examining a selection of about five million documents Wikileaks published involving a security company called Stratfor Global Intelligence. The emails had all kinds of information, including the names, addresses and credit card numbers of people with whom Stratfor was involved. But that was a small percentage of the material and Brown appears to have ignored it. What caught his interest, and what comprised most of the files, were documents and emails that reveal a very close and inappropriate relationship between Stratfor, several other security contractors and several agencies of the government (including the NSA).

The emails paint a picture of constant information sharing with the government giving the contractors vast amounts of data from investigations and cases at the companies' request. Of course, the federal officials got plenty in exchange as these security consultancies shared anything they discovered with their government partners when the feds requested it. It's almost as if these companies were operating as federal agencies.

The point, of course, is that they're not federal agencies, and the normal restrictions and oversight that apply to government intelligence people, as weak as they are turning out to be, are irrelevant to these companies. They don't report to Congress, go to court for subpeonas and don't files reports for Congress (and the public) to peruse. As far as most of us know, they don't exist, and because this type of relationship dances on the edge of illegality, they work hard to keep that curtain of secrecy intact.

Brown and other Project PM activists were working to change that by unraveling the relationships and naming some names. To do the unraveling, they employed a practice frequently used by on-line journalists known as "crowdsourcing" in which a person posts some information (usually too much for one person to analyze alone) and invites a group of people to dive in and collaborate on the analysis. Brown launched the crowdsourcing by posting a link to the Wikileaks documents on Stratfor in a chat room Project PM was using.

That was all the government needed. Prosecutors immediately started hitting Brown with indictments, focusing primarily, not on the information they obviously wanted to protect, but on the spreading of illegally obtained credit card information. They charged him with a dozen counts of "identity theft" and then things got even worse.

At some point, responding to the pressure (friends say), Brown began using heroin, and his behavior became erratic. In March, 2012, the F.B.I. tried to serve a warrant on him when he was at his mother's house. The F.B.I. accused his mother of trying to hide his laptop, and prosecutors charged her with obstruction of justice. She pleaded guilty this past March and is awaiting sentencing. Soon after the raid, Brown posted a video on Youtube threatening to ruin the lives of the agent who led the investigation and his family. While the threat was not about physical harm and was clearly just frustrating rant, the FBI takes threats against its agents seriously, and it slapped him with yet another indictment.

In total, Brown is facing 105 years if convicted of the 17 charges against him.

There are many questions raised by this case, all summarized with one question: "what exactly did this guy do wrong?".

That significant issue isn't being discussed much publicly partly because few journalists are really covering the case. While there have been some articles of late, they don't come close to the maelstrom of analysis and argument the Snowden revelations, Wikileaks or the Manning case have provoked.

Part of the reason may be Brown himself. He is, by even his friends (and his own) account, not an easy man to get along with. Even the most polite descriptions of his conduct and personality point to an obsessiveness that can easily become nasty and an ego that can be overwhelming.

Adrian Chen, a technology writer for Gawker, was less than diplomatic. "...Barrett Brown is also a megalomaniacal troll. Not to mention a real a**hole," Chen wrote. "As the self-appointed Face of Anonymous, he put as much bad information in the public sphere as good, once starting a bogus "war" with the Zetas drug cartel for attention. Yeah, some of the charges against Brown give me shivers as a journalist. But it has been amazing, the way the story of Barrett Brown, the truth crusader, has been whitewashed to fit into the Information Martyr mold."

Then there is the more "general" issue that has been infused into many of the most recent information debates: many mainstream journalists simply don't consider people like Brown part of their profession. For them, these "new journalists" are either activists (and therefore "biased") or untrained in journalistic practice and therefore amateurs. That myopic perspective excludes most of the top contemporary information distributors from the traditional constitutional protections journalists have. The logic goes that Brown isn't a real journalist so his problems have nothing to do with the concept of a "free press".

But none of that detracts from the facts of the case and the importance it has. It's not about whether we like Barrett Brown (many actually do) or consider him a real journalist (which he is); it's about how the charges against him set a horrifying precedent for all of us.

And that's the answer to "why?"

It has nothing to do with credit card theft. Prosecutors acknowledge that Brown didn't pay any attention to the card information. In fact, like any self-respecting Internet journalist, he has long denounced the theft of all personal information, including card numbers. They don't even accuse him of having stolen it or hacked Stratfor's documents. Besides, Chicago-based hacker, Jeremy Hammond, who actually pleaded guilty to participating in the original Stratfor hack, faces a possible sentence of only ten years in jail.

In fact, Brown's true "crime" isn't even the use of this source material which publications all over the world have reported on for years now.

Rather, as the United States attorney's office explained in its press release, "By transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online, without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor and the card holders."

There we have it. Brown's real "crime" is that he posted a link anyone could get to and therefore released to the public files that implicated the government in possibly illegal activity. What's on trial here is the use of links: the "hypertext" protocol that is what makes the Internet special and what gives it the ability to allow everyone in the world to share information.

"The big reason this matters is that he transferred a link, something all of us do every single day, and ended up being charged for it," Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the New York Times. "I think that this administration is trying to prosecute the release of information in any way it can."

To make this personal, do you use links? Or, a less absurd question, are you sure the links you post don't include criminal information? Today, there are an estimated 4500 federal criminal statures and that means that, at some point in your life, you've probably violated federal law without knowing it. The same is true of the people who posted the material you are linking to. As ridiculous as it may seem, based on the Brown prosecution, you could be charged with a crime without having any involvement in it by linking to material posted by people who have no idea they committed a crime.

For example, here's the link to the Stratfor files. While it indicates that these linked documents have now been cleansed of credit card information, I can't be sure of that. Nor do I know that other information the government considers illegal (or may in the future) isn't in there. I haven't read all the documents. But based on what prosecutors are saying, if these files do contain information they eventually consider illegal, I could be charged with spreading it.

On the one hand, they attack privacy, which makes the Internet useful for us. Now they're attacking links, the protocol that makes the Internet...well, the Internet. That's something we can't afford to lose

For those who might want to do something about this, there's a website of people trying to organize a campaign in his support.
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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.

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Post a link, go to jail.Freedom in 21st century Am... by Samson on Wednesday, Sep 18, 2013 at 5:58:34 PM
So, posting a link is not part of our freedom or s... by Mark Adams JD/MBA on Wednesday, Sep 18, 2013 at 7:43:55 PM
Thanks for your comment, Mark. I think you've said... by Alfredo Lopez on Wednesday, Sep 18, 2013 at 10:56:57 PM