Knight Center
Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

U.S. government drops majority of criminal charges against Barrett Brown



United States federal prosecutors decided on March 5 to drop the majority of criminal charges faced by journalist-activist Barrett Brown, who published a hyperlink to information obtained illegally by hacking group Anonymous, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Brown, a contributor to The Guardian and Vanity Fair who has also collaborated as a writer and editor with Anonymous, was indicted on Sept. 12, 2012, after linking readers to a site publishing data hacked from staff members at the private intelligence firm Stratfor.

According to The Guardian, the data he linked to included 60,000 credit card numbers and the email addresses of 860,000 Stratfor subscribers, all hacked by Anonymous in 2011. This constituted the main allegation against him for which he was charged on 12 counts, 11 of which were dropped.

On Tuesday, March 4, Brown’s lawyers presented a legal memorandum arguing the charges related to hyperlinking were “too vague” and “in breach of his constitutional right to free speech.”

“Republishing a hyperlink does not itself move, convey, select, place or otherwise transfer, a file or document from one location to another,” the motion read, saying he simply shared a link to material already published elsewhere.

Had Brown been convicted for these charges, a precedent could have been set criminalizing hyperlinking to content on the Internet, according to his legal team. It could have affected ordinary people republishing content on the Internet, cyber-security experts carrying out research or journalists carrying out newsgathering and verification.

While these charges were dropped, Brown is still detained due to the remaining charges (six from a total of 17), most of them related to his arrest and including obstruction of justice and threatening a federal law enforcement officer. He still faces a maximum term of 70 years in prison, which were originally 105 prior to the charges being dropped.

The head of RSF’s Americas desk, Camille Soulier, said the organization welcomed the decision but demanded the dismissal of any remaining charges, arguing that Brown was “paying the price for an overly expansive and abusive interpretation of the concept of national security, one that violates freedom of information.”

A few months ago, U.S. federal prosecutors were also criticized for barring Brown from speaking to the media in relation to his ongoing case, a move viewed as another affront to freedom of expression.

RSF observed that Brown’s investigative work related to ties between private and government intelligence agencies and had previously attracted attention from U.S. authorities. In 2011, he reported on a project named “Team Themis,” which aimed to “neutralize” the group Anonymous and journalists associated with them.

Correction 03/10/2014: An original version of this post identified Barrett Brown as a self-proclaimed spokesman for Anonymous. FreeBarrettBrown.org referred the Knight Center to a letter Brown wrote in which he denies having claimed a position with the hacker collective, although he has written and edited materials for them.



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