The First Amendment may no longer apply in cyberspace, as an investigative journalist has been sentenced to eight and a half years in prison after doing something many writers and bloggers have done.
Barrett Brown could spend up to 63 months in federal prison after he posted a link to leaked material in a chat room.
“The government exposed me to decades of prison time for copying and pasting a link to a publicly available file that other journalists were also linking to without being prosecuted,” Brown told reporters at his sentencing in Dallas on Jan. 22.
Brown had originally faced 100 years in prison but his sentence was reduced to 8.5 years or around 63 months. Brown has already served around 28 months in prison, so he’ll serve another 35 months with time served.
“Good news! — The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex,” Brown wrote to his supporters in a satirical post. “For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system.”
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Free speech advocates do not find Brown’s fate so funny, as they contend it sets a dangerous precedent that could be used against any American that tries to exercise his or her right to free speech online. Brown pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and threatening an FBI agent in an online video (he said he wasn’t going to kill the agent but would “ruin” his life). U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay sentenced Brown to the prison time and ordered him to pay $890,000 in restitution.
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“The right of journalists — or anyone for that matter — to link to already-public information, including sensitive information, is in serious jeopardy if Brown is convicted,” Hanni Fakhoury and Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation wrote in a blog post.
Brown was arrested by the FBI in 2012 after he included a link in a chatroom to emails and other private data that was stolen by the group Anonymous from Stratfor, or Strategic Forecasting. Stratfor’s clients include the US Army, the US Air Force and the Miami Police Department, according to CNET. Brown had not been involved in the Anonymous hacking but had only posted the link. That Anonymous hacker, Jeremy Hammond, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Federal prosecutors contend that Brown violated laws against hacking because some of the information he linked to contained credit card numbers and passwords. Brown is a respected journalist who has written for The Guardian and Vanity Fair in the past.
“It bears repeating: the government does not allege Brown participated in the hacking of Stratfor at all,” Fakhoury and Timm wrote. “Here, Brown didn’t even publish anything, he merely directed other people to where information was already published via a standard hyperlink.”
Fakhoury and Timm believe First Amendment rights are under threat.
“Under the government’s theory in Barrett Brown’s case, all journalists (and anyone else for that matter) tweeting out the link to the list of Congressional staffer email addresses and passwords were trafficking in authentication features and are guilty of a felony,” they wrote.
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