Barrett Brown's Partial Victory: Crowd-Sourcing and Crowd Support
Federal prosecutors last week dropped several of the most significant charges facing Internet activist and journalist Barrett Brown -- charges that could have drawn a jail sentence of 105 years.
The dropped charges, essentially "fraud" and "theft", involved Brown's publishing a website link to a trove of documents (from WikiLeaks) detailing the activities of defense and surveillance contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence. That highly controversial charge -- accusing Brown of something most Internet activists (and many users) do all the time -- sparked an avalanche of protest by journalists of every stripe, including mainstream publications.
Understandably, those who felt threatened by these draconian government actions were more than pleased by the decision to drop the charges and it was hailed as a victory for free speech and a free Internet.
But several charges against Brown remain, including conspiracy to publish personal information, "obstruction of justice" and threatening an FBI agent. These charges, after the theft charges were dropped, become even more absurd and vindictive than they originally were. But they are still very serious: if convicted, Brown could face 70 years in prison. So the question now becomes why the government is pushing these charges after it decided to drop the others?
The answer may provide an insight into the way our government is seeking to silence journalists and freeze on-line activists. Based on the charges dropped and those retained, the Brown case has gone from an attack on a powerful Internet investigative technique called "crowd-sourcing" to an attack on the Internet's real power: crowd response.
The story, explored in a previous article on this website, shows how frightened our government is of the Internet.
In 2011, Brown -- a respected journalist and author perhaps best known as a member of and spokesperson for the Internet activism network Anonymous -- began examining a selection of about five million documents Wikileaks published involving Stratfor Global Intelligence. The published information included the names, addresses and credit card numbers of people with whom Stratfor was involved, but that was a small fraction of the information. Most of the documents and emails captured showed a very close and possibly illegal relationship between Stratfor, several other security contractors and government agencies (including the NSA). That information seemed to indicate that Stratfor was acting and being treated as a quasi-agency of the government.