Feds No Longer Trying to Convict Journalist for Hyperlinking

Some charges against Barrett Brown for linking to hacked documents to be dropped


Barrett Brown

Journalist-Activist Barrett Brown is one of the lesser-known victims of the federal government's war on journalism. Brian Doherty highlighted his case last June. In short, Brown, a supporter of Anonymous, was targeted for prosecution because he hyperlinked to a website containing material hacked from intelligence firm Stratfor. To be clear, he did not himself hack Stratfor – a member of hacking group AntiSec has already pleaded guilty. He linked to an online dump of the materials in order to try to crowdsource research into the documents.

But he was targeted by the FBI (along with his mother) and faced 17 criminal charges related not just to the hacking but his emotional response to being targeted, which included a YouTube video naming and threatening retaliation against an agent. He faced a maximum penalty of 105 years in federal prison (though he would be unlikely to ever be sentenced that much time).

It seems the feds have finally recognized some level of absurdity in their behavior. They are dropping 11 of the 17 counts against Brown, the counts that essentially accuse Brown of being responsible for hacking Stratfor or stealing from Stratfor simply by posting a hypertext link to the contents. The Guardian notes:

The US government's decision to drop counts one and three to 12 in the indictment relating to the Stratfor hack came just a day after lawyers for Brown filed a legal memorandum calling for those counts to be dropped. Brown's attorneys argued in the memo that the prosecution was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, saying that "republishing a hyperlink does not itself move, convey, select, place or otherwise transfer, a file or document from one location to another".

Federal prosecutors have given no further information about why they decided to drop the counts, and a request for comment was not immediately returned. One possible explanation is that government lawyers assessed the steep hill they had to climb overcoming First Amendment protections and decided instead to focus on the other charges still facing Brown.

The activist, who wrote for the Guardian and other publications before his arrest in September 2012, remains accused of count two in this indictment – that he committed access device fraud relating to the credit card details released in the Anonymous hack. He also faces two separate indictments, one for obstruction of justice by allegedly attempting to hide laptops, and the other for allegedly making threats in a YouTube video against an FBI officer and disclosing information about an FBI agent and his family.

So of the charges that remain, all but one are an outcome of the FBI targeting him for something they now acknowledge is not a criminal act. He still faces a maximum possible prison sentence of 70 years (though again, he would be very unlikely to get that much time).

In February, J.D. Tuccille took note that the federal government's treatment of Brown contributed to America sliding down 13 spots in the World Press Freedom Index.