Last Tuesday “hacktivist journo” Barrett Brown pled guilty in a US court after a long-running battle with the FBI. He had reported on a high-profile Anonymous hack as well as posting provocative videos on YouTube baiting FBI officials.
At the hearing, the court reduced his sentence from 105 years to eight and a half years, with lawyers saying he could serve far less time.
Both Brown’s defence team and freedom of speech activists are now worried a precedent has been set in which reporters could be prosecuted for writing stories using hacked information.
“The implications are worrisome in the extreme,” said Kevin Gallagher, director of Free Barrett Brown Ltd.
“It must be noted that Brown’s lawyers worked painstakingly to avoid setting an undesirable precedent—one that would place other journalists at risk for dealing with hackers as sources.
“Yet the dangers of this novel legal construction are clear: journalists may be prosecuted for merely speaking to hackers and having knowledge of their breaches.”
Last month US prosecutors dropped 11 of the 17 charges against Brown, who faces three separate indictments. The abandoned claims all related to a breach of private intelligance contractor Stratfor carried out by Anonymous in 2011.
The ringleader of the Anonymous hackers, Jeremy Hammond, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last November.
Brown’s case was criticised by freedom of speech campaigners because it involved him hyperlinking to stolen Stratfor data which had already been made publicly available. Concerns revolved around how one of the core tenets of the internet – link sharing, could be impacted.
“The attempt to criminalize the act of providing links broke new ground in dangerous official absurdity,” said Norman Solomon, an American journalist associated with media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
No explanation was given by the FBI or prosecutors as to why the charges were suddenly dropped.
Once the gagging order was lifted it was revealed that Brown had in fact advised the Anonymous hackers to redact the data, even contacting the Stratfor CEO to tell him this.
Brown wrote in an email to Anonymous : “It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to tell Stratfor that you guys will consider making any reasonable redactions to emails that might endanger, say, activists living under dictatorships with whom they might have spoken… If they fail to cooperate, it will be on them if any claims are made about this yield endangering anyone”.
According to Gallagher one of Brown’s lawyers commented :”He was very critical of careless releases of data by hackers, but he made efforts to protect his sources; and that’s what he’s being charged for.”
The remaining charges constitute two felonies and one misdemeanour, with one charge of making an internet threat resting on aggressively presented YouTube videos that Brown posted of himself after he grew angry at the FBI’s treatment of his case. One clip was titled “Why I’m Going To Destroy FBI Agent Smith.” A description under the video called for tip-offs about the FBI agent to be sent to a specific email account. Brown pleaded guilty to the charge.
“Barrett expresses deep regret for what he did in making the threat, which he did impulsively at a time when he felt cornered and was unable to make rational decisions,” said one of the lawyers representing Brown, Ahmed Ghappour.
Brown was also prosecuted over obstructing the execution of a search warrant, and being an accessory to unauthorized access of a protected computer. He pleaded guilty to both these charges and will now face up to eight and a half years in prison.
Commenting on the final charge – Norman Solomon also told Index
“Journalists are now facing even more dangerous political terrain in the United States if they want to do real investigative reporting.”
“We should be greatly concerned that U.S. authorities have shown their determination to punish some journalists for putting together pieces of puzzles into coherent pictures.
He added, “In the context of internet journalism, a felony count against linking is akin to legal action against demonstrably thinking in unauthorized ways.”