The indictment of an activist merely for sharing a URL shows the lengths governments will go to fight information activism.
Welcome to a world where simply posting a URL is a crime. Yep, you’re in it.
On the weekend it was revealed that US online activist and sometime Crikey contributor Barrett Brown would be prosecuted for sharing this link to materials, including credit card numbers, obtained in the hacking of self-proclaimed private intelligence outfit Stratfor, on an IRC channel.
Brown is already in prison for threatening an FBI agent, Robert Smith, who was involved in raids on his and his mother’s residences (and therein lies a tale we’ll come to in a moment). The new indictment accuses Brown of “affecting interstate commerce” by trafficking in stolen credit card numbers.
The credit card numbers of Stratfor subscribers were kept in unencrypted form by the company and taken at the same time as a vast trove of emails revealing a mix of confidential material and asinine geo-bullshitting from a company that revels in the description “shadow CIA”. Some Anonymous activists used some of the credit card numbers to make donations to charities.
Brown isn’t charged with using the credit card numbers for anything. Nor is he charged with hacking into Stratfor or taking the credit card numbers. As Brown explained at the time, the point of the hack was the Stratfor emails, not credit card details.
So, in short, Brown is being prosecuted simply for sharing a link to material that was already publicly available.
Now, remember this is the hack in which the FBI itself was directly implicated: its turncoat hacker Hector Monsegur was deeply involved in it beforehand and the FBI provided server space for the hacked material to be stored. The information was later published by WikiLeaks, in what may have been an attempted entrapment operation by the FBI. Another hacker, Jeremy Hammond, is currently facing life in prison for the Stratfor breach. Unbelievably, the judge in his trial is married to a Stratfor client whose personal details were released as part of the hack. The judge failed to disclose her link and has so far rejected calls to recuse herself.
But there’s another reason why the Brown indictment represents the moment when the US security state reached the point of simply making shit up. Let’s go back to the original reason why Brown found himself in jail, his threats against an FBI agent. Included in that indictment as evidence was this:
“On September 10, 2012, Barrett Lancaster Brown used his Twitter.com account BarrettBrownLOL and reposted the message “A dead man can’t leak stuff… Illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”
Thus, as Australian information activist Asher Wolf noted, the only person to be charged for the many threats made against the life of Assange by US media and political figures in 2010 and since, has been an information activist and WikiLeaks supporter. Beckel himself, of course, remains unindicted.
In a way, this Kafkaesque moment, which has spawned the hashtag #righttolink, is the ultimate logical response to online activism. Despite the aggressive pursuit of online activists and ever-growing surveillance, governments and corporations are still frustrated by the speed with which large volumes of information deemed secret can be shared globally.
Once stymied by the physical limitations of grams per square metre in distributing information, those who want to share secrets now have virtually unlimited capacity. Filters can be circumvented, files can be distributed, sites can be mirrored: criminalising the mere sharing of links is the only way to strike at this high-speed threat, with the aim not of preventing circulation of information but of slowing it, of exercising a chilling effect by ensuring those who share links to information deemed inconvenient by governments or corporations do so knowing they may be prosecuted.