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Gallagher writes: "When I first noticed Barrett Brown in early 2011, I never thought that two years later I'd be directing Free Barrett Brown."

The journalist Barrett Brown, now awaiting trial on charges carrying a possible 105-year prison term. (photo: Nikki Loehr)
The journalist Barrett Brown, now awaiting trial on charges carrying a possible 105-year prison term. (photo: Nikki Loehr)

Barrett Brown: Political Prisoner of the Information Revolution

By Kevin M Gallagher, Guardian UK

14 July 13


If the US government succeeds in criminalising Brown's posting of a hyperlink, the freedom of all internet users is in jeopardy

hen I first noticed Barrett Brown in early 2011, I never thought that two years later I'd be directing Free Barrett Brown. Intrigued by his irreverence, I became familiar with his work, admiring him for his skill as a writer. I spoke to him briefly on IRC (internet relay chat) and occasionally dropped into the same channels he frequented; later I met him in person at a conference in New York City. But it's the US government's behavior in this and other cases – see also, Manning, Hammond, Swartz, Assange, etc – that have made running his legal defense fund a labor of love for me.

The distributed research project Brown founded, Project PM, is important and necessary. Since 9/11, the intelligence and cyber-security contracting industries have exploded in size. I believe, as Barrett does, that the public/private partnership on surveillance constitutes a threat to civil transparency and the health of democratic institutions. Large and very profitable companies like Booz Allen Hamilton obtain most of their revenues from the federal government; yet, the majority of their work is performed in secrecy.

Barrett had the insight to realize early on that the troves of emails that were hacked by Anonymous out of HBGary Federal and Stratfor and subsequently made public had the potential to provide a rare window into the activities of the cyber-intelligence industry. I believe it was this journalistic work of digging into areas that powerful people would rather keep in the dark that made him a target.

Contrary to claims, Brown is not a hacker (he is unabashedly lacking in technical skills). Nor was he a spokesperson for Anonymous (the very idea is ridiculous). He is an iconoclastic writer with a penchant for satire and hyperbole. He became an activist by observing the media's failure to cover the issues or stories that he deemed important. Some of his proudest work was the assistance rendered by Anonymous to citizens in North Africa during the first months of the Arab Spring.

As an information activist who understands how information can be distributed and have an impact, Brown was extremely skilled and media-savvy. With Anonymous, he fulfilled a function that was necessary, and which few others were willing to do: put a public face to a movement for transparency. He was highly effective – and that's why he's being punished so severely.

The fact that he's now facing a possible maximum of 105 years in prison is distressing, but it's indicative of the larger pattern: an out-of-touch government at war with the press, prosecuting whistleblowers and activists, trying to silence dissent. Brown's work has been interrupted, but many of the things he warned about – mass surveillance of journalists, the threat to privacy presented by intelligence contractors, have turned out to be correct. He has been hugely vindicated – and public support for him is growing.

Overzealous and excessive prosecutions like Brown's use flawed tactics, without focusing on the facts or the merits, and are in reality persecutions. They have invented crimes out of thin air, piling charge on charge; and they have extracted a guilty plea from a family member. In April, they went on a fishing expedition against the Project PM website, with a subpoena intended to identify other activists. They also tried, but failed, to seize $20,000 that my organization had raised for Barrett's legal defense.

Brown was arrested during a heavily-armed FBI raid for, allegedly, making threats in YouTube videos and via tweets. The fact that the same FBI agent who is an alleged "victim" in the case continues to be the one doing the investigative casework and serving subpoenas is a clear conflict of interest.

The government also argues that because Brown copied a hyperlink to data from the Stratfor dump from one chatroom to another, he's guilty on numerous counts of identity theft and fraud. This is not just totally absurd, it threatens the rights of internet users worldwide, not to mention reporters who link to primary source documents.

The potential criminalization of linking – a basic function of hypertext, the foundation of the worldwide web – is an affront to us all and must be resisted. With the obstruction charges, prosecutors want to set a precedent whereby a journalist is not allowed to protect his work and his sources from government agents – the essence of reporter's privilege.

Those things that Barrett helped uncover and shed light on while he was a free man are notable in themselves: the capability termed persona management, which "entails the use of software by which to facilitate the use of multiple fake online personas, or 'sockpuppets', generally for the use of propaganda, disinformation, or as a surveillance method by which to discover details of a human target via social interactions"; an initiative called Team Themis proposing to infiltrate, attack and discredit WikiLeaks, its supporters, and established journalists such as Glenn Greenwald; and Romas/COIN, a massive program of disinformation and surveillance aimed at Arab countries.

We are at a crossroads, and the US government seeks to deter and make examples out of those who work for a better world and reveal uncomfortable truths. But it's too late: information and the internet will be free, and so will its heroes. Barrett Brown is a political prisoner of the information revolution, and he deserves our support. your social media marketing partner
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