Is Barrett Brown a journalist or an activist? Regardless of the answer, his case is an outrage

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By now, most people have probably heard of Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who leaked the NSA’s surveillance documents, as well as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, the Army private who leaked diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Barrett Brown, however, remains largely unknown — despite the fact that his case is arguably even more of an outrage than either Manning or Snowden. While both of them were charged for deliberately leaking classified information, Brown was indicted and could face years in prison for the simple crime of reposting a link on an Internet Relay Chat channel.

How is such a thing possible, you might ask? Isn’t posting a link the type of thing that billions of people do every day — and isn’t the process of posting a link to such material something journalists of all kinds do routinely? The answer to both of those questions is clearly yes. But regardless, Brown stands accused by the District Court in Texas of a series of charges including trafficking in stolen credit-card information, which could result in a lengthy jail sentence (Brown was also charged with threatening a federal agent, after his mother’s house was raided by agents looking for his laptop).

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As far as the US Attorney in Dallas is concerned, Brown committed a felony when he posted the hyperlink in that IRC channel, because the link went to a trove of documents that the hacker group Anonymous had stolen from Stratfor, a foreign-intelligence consulting firm with ties to the U.S. intelligence community. Within those documents were credit-card numbers and personal information, and according to the criminal code this kind of data is illegal to “possess with intent to use unlawfully or transfer unlawfully.”

Does a hyperlink involve either possession or illegal transfer? It’s difficult to see how. If it does, then my posting the same hyperlink here would presumably be illegal as well (here’s a link to the Stratfor emails at WikiLeaks, which don’t contain any credit-card info). But more than that, the IRC chat thread where Brown posted the link was explicitly set up by him to crowdsource information about intelligence contractors like Stratfor and their ties to the U.S. government — which as the Committee to Protect Journalists points out, should make every journalist concerned about the charges against him.

“By the U.S. government’s theory, journalists can be held criminally liable merely for linking to a publicly-available file that contains sensitive information, whether or not they had any part in actually obtaining the data in the first place. This theory threatens the nature of the Web, as well as the ethical duty of journalists to verify and report the truth.”

One reason why Brown may not have seen a groundswell of broad support for his cause (although there is an effort to create one) is that he falls in that increasingly large grey area between journalist and activist. The 32-year-old Texan is a member of the shadowy hacker group Anonymous, and for a time was widely quoted as a spokesman for the group, but he is also a journalist who has written for a number of online outlets about the rise of the surveillance state — which arguably puts him in the same camp as Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald, who has been working closely with Edward Snowden.

Journalism is being criminalized

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Since the Snowden leaks, there have been many attempts — including some by journalists like David Gregory of NBC — to argue that Greenwald isn’t a “real” journalist, or that he should also face charges for his dealings with the CIA contractor, a view that plays right into the hands of some U.S. legislators, who are eager to crack down on classified leaks by government sources, and by extension are doing their best to criminalize the act of investigative journalism.

As many have pointed out, including journalism professors Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, what needs to be protected isn’t “professional” journalists or specific media outlets, but the act of journalism itself. The only relevant question is what Barrett Brown’s purpose was in posting that link — was it to “possess with intent to use unlawfully?” Or was it to share the Stratfor documents with others who could add more detail about the firm’s ties to the government? If it’s the latter, then it should qualify as journalism and therefore be protected.

Sites like Gawker have tried to argue that Barrett Brown doesn’t deserve support because he is an “Anonymous fameball” and “megalomaniacal troll,” and that these qualities somehow outweigh any contribution he may have made to journalism. But if we only supported journalists who were meek and didn’t seek the limelight or hold any uncomfortable views, the list of those deserving our support would be virtually non-existent (Brown, who has been writing from prison, agreed on Wednesday to stop discussing the case in the media).

As I pointed out in a post about Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, who was convicted of computer crimes under the ridiculously flawed Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — the same law that was used against Aaron Swartz — just because someone is a troll doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to the fact that the charges against them are absurd. And if we do, we give up the right to be concerned when the same laws are turned against someone we like.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / BortN66

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