The Link That Landed a Journalist in Jail

David Carr recently reported in the New York Times that journalist Barrett Brown could face a 100-year prison term if he’s found guilty for linking to stolen information. He didn’t steal this information himself, nor did he post it online. He simply linked to it.

Brown is a dogged journalist who has done important and revealing reporting on the business of surveillance. His work has appeared in BusinessWeek, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and Vanity Fair. He has also served at times as a self-appointed spokesman for Anonymous, the leaderless Web collective of hackers and activists.

As a victim, he’s imperfect, Carr writes. Brown has struggled with substance abuse and by all accounts hasn’t always been easy to get along with. For example, he threatened an FBI agent and his family by name in a video he posted to YouTube.

Brown came to the government's attention when he linked in a chat room to material Anonymous had posted online.

In recent years, Anonymous has hacked into the computer systems of a number of intelligence and surveillance firms who contract with the government and the biggest corporations. These firms helped craft elaborate campaigns to attack and discredit activists and journalists on behalf of corporate clients and have received huge government contracts for other projects.

By all accounts, Brown doesn’t have the technical ability or knowhow to have participated in the hacking that exposed these documents. But once they were released, Brown set up a research organization, Project PM, to sort through the documents and report on what they contained.

“The files contained revelations about close and perhaps inappropriate ties between government security agencies and private contractors,” Carr writes. But they also contained credit-card information and private emails.

When Brown linked to these files in a chat room, he “provided access” to stolen information, the government says. Prosecutors charged him with 12 counts related to identity theft.

The notion that linking to stolen material makes the linker a party to the original crime is absurd. And the severity of the charges is clearly meant to send a message to journalists and whistleblowers everywhere. Viewed in light of the Chelsea Manning case and the Edward Snowden leaks, the Brown case appears part and parcel of the government’s crackdown on activists who leak information and the journalists who report on them.

Carr reminds us that journalists frequently link to stolen documents. The Times’ most recent article on the Snowden documents did so. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also points to a leak of congressional staffer passwords that many news organizations linked to. And this practice is only likely to expand.

“News organizations in receipt of leaked documents are increasingly confronting tough decisions about what to publish,” Carr writes, “and are defending their practices in court and in the court of public opinion, not to mention before an administration determined to aggressively prosecute leakers.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists responded in more forceful terms, arguing that the government’s handling of this case “threatens the nature of the Web, as well as the ethical duty of journalists to verify and report the truth.”

Indeed, in the U.S. and the U.K. we’ve seen shocking efforts to harass and intimidate journalists working on national security and surveillance issues. The Barrett Brown case follows a similar narrative.

When Brown posted the link to the Anonymous documents in a chat room, the government tracked him down at his mother’s home and tried to seize his laptop. When he and his mother refused to hand over the computer, the FBI threatened to throw Brown’s mother in jail. Here’s how the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald describes the harassment:

Over the next several months, FBI agents continued to harass not only Brown but also his mother, repeatedly threatening to arrest her and indict her for obstruction of justice for harboring Brown and helping him conceal documents by letting him into her home.

Brown’s mother eventually pled guilty but has yet to be sentenced. Brown lashed out at the FBI, threatening one agent by name, in the video he posted to YouTube. Those threats gave the FBI cause to arrest Brown and he has been in custody ever since.

While threats of this sort should be taken seriously, so too should the ongoing harassment of journalists and their families.

The New York Times story on Barrett Brown is important because it comes on the heels of a gag order that prohibits people involved in his case from speaking to the press. The legal fees for the case are expected to exceed $200,000 and an activist has established a defense fund.

Links are the connective tissue of the Internet. They enable us to share news, discover new information, dig deeper into issues and give credit to sources. The government’s effort to criminalize linking is akin to rewiring how the Internet works. It will have a chilling effect on how journalists report on sensitive government matters.

This case also has a bearing on all of us who post links to Facebook, tweet articles or blog about the news of the day.


UPDATE: On March 5, 2014, the government dropped the linking-related charges against Brown. He still faces other charges, but this is an important win for press freedom and Internet freedom. Read more here.

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