Feds Dismiss Charges Against Barrett Brown For Linking After Realizing They Had No Case

from the and-it-shouldn't-be dept

Well, well, well. We were about to put up the post below, describing the arguments that Barrett Brown's lawyers filed about why the criminal charges against him for sharing a link (which they claimed was trafficking in stolen credit card details) were completely bogus... and it appears that the DOJ itself was convinced. Just hours after Brown's lawyers filed their comprehensive argument, the DOJ has filed a motion to dismiss the criminal charges that stem from the cutting and pasting of the link. The other charges, concerning threatening acts (described below) and "obstruction of justice" (for hiding his laptop in a cabinet) remain, meaning that he is still facing significant jail time. But the core charge, concerning cutting and pasting a link, is now being dismissed. Of course, it's still a travesty that the DOJ ever included that in the indictment in the first place.

Our original post, about Brown's now obsolete filing is below:
We've covered the deeply troubling case of Barrett Brown before. The DOJ has been working overtime to lock up Brown, whose main "crime" appears to have been taking a link that was publicly available that pointed to documents taken by members of Anonymous from the consulting/media company Stratfor, and pasting that link into an online chat. Brown did not hack Stratfor. Instead, he was working on his ongoing project to dig into the various documents leaked via Anonymous for journalistic purposes. While Brown's case was initially messy due to some ill-advised public statements by Brown (in which he ranted publicly about law enforcement, to the point of threatening to shoot those who came after him), when you dig into the fundamentals of the case, there's not much there other than taking that publicly available link and pasting it into a chat room. The government is claiming that since the documents from Stratfor included credit card info, Brown's copy/paste was the equivalent of trafficking in stolen credit cards. Think about that for a second.

Brown's legal team has now filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the key claims concerning the copy pasting of the link, which underpin pretty much the entire case. This is an issue that is important to anyone who believes both in the freedom of the press as well as the idea that merely sharing a link shouldn't make one liable (especially criminally liable) for what's in the content that's being linked to. The filing makes three basic arguments.

First, it notes that merely sharing a link clearly does not meet the standard of a criminal act under the law that Brown is being charged under, with the key question being whether merely pasting a link is "transferring" ... "authentication features."
As a matter of pleading, the Indictment is fatally flawed because (1) it fails to allege an essential element—“the transfer of authentication features”—altogether, and (2) it fails to allege that Mr. Brown “transferred” anything other than a hyperlink. Instead, the government claims that Mr. Brown violated the statute by republishing a (publicly available) hyperlink which caused a (publicly available) file to be made “available to others online.” However, as shown in POINT I, the government’s theory of the case fails to satisfy any valid construction of the charging statutes.
Second, the filing notes that even if the court actually believes that merely copying and pasting a publicly available link is "the transfer of authentication features" under the law, then that law clearly violates the First Amendment:
First, Mr. Brown is alleged to have engaged in pure speech, not merely conduct with expressive elements. The act of republishing a hyperlink is unquestionably an act of pure communication and expression. Thus, applying Section 1028 to Mr. Brown’s republication of a hyperlink is a substantial burden on his right to free speech. Pure speech also warrants the highest protection, and laws burdening pure speech must face heightened scrutiny. Only a “‘need... of the highest order’” can justify “a regulation of pure speech.”....

Second, Mr. Brown’s speech (by republishing the hyperlink) addressed political issues—namely the uncovering of improprieties within the private intelligence contracting industry. As such, it is entitled to the First Amendment’s highest protection. “[L]awful political speech [is] at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect.” ....

Third, Mr. Brown’s speech (by republishing the hyperlink) was part of his routine press activity: gathering, disseminating and publishing information about the Stratfor hack and, more generally, private intelligence contractors.
If the court still isn't convinced, Brown's lawyers offer up a third argument, noting that even if copying and pasting the link is covered by the specific law and if pasting a link isn't protected by the First Amendment (as it clearly should be), then Brown's lawyers point out that the law in question, 18 USC 1028 is "unconstitutionally vague on their face" and "unconstitutionally overbroad and chills speech in violation of the First Amendment."

This is going to be an important case to follow. In the past whenever we've covered Brown, we've heard from some people who had personal run-ins with Brown and didn't like him, as if that means that his legal case isn't important and the legal issues should be overlooked. We disagree. No matter what people think of Brown, the key legal issues in this case are vitally important in an era when federal prosecutors are piling on excessive charges against people they don't like and, even worse, when there has been a ratcheting up of rhetoric against journalists reporting on leaked information. Some of the most important cases you will see involve people that you probably wouldn't like very much in person -- but that matters little when it comes to the importance of the underlying legal points and the wider impact they may have. In fact, it makes the issues more important, because once the precedent is set, they can be used against people you do like in the future.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    DannyB (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 10:35am

    Obstruction of Justice?

    By filing the complaint for linking in the first place, isn't it the DOJ that is guilty of Obstruction of Justice?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 10:39am


    To include an embed of the motion to dismiss.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2014 @ 10:40am

    So this is what happens to those who don't post anonymously. At least it looks like he has a good lawyer. These are all trumped up, bullshit charges.

    I have honestly lost a lot of respect for the DOJ over the past few years, specifically Eric Holder. Between going after online chat nobodies, whistleblowers, information freedom pioneers like Aaron Swartz, and authorizing bulk unconstitutional spying based on 'interpretations' that stretch all word beyond meaning.

    It makes me lose respect and faith in America's judicial system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2014 @ 10:47am

    Wasn't this a minor plot point in House of Cards season 2?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Frankz (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 11:35am


    I doubt they just suddenly realized they had no case. What they suddenly realized was that the defense finally made the argument that they don't want a court to rule on to set a precedent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2014 @ 2:22pm

    Let's take a minute to re-read a recent article here at Techdirt

    "In the past whenever we've covered Brown, we've heard from some people who had personal run-ins with Brown and didn't like him, as if that means that his legal case isn't important and the legal issues should be overlooked."

    Oh, so Barret Brown is a horrible, untrustworthy person, eh? Says who exactly?
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140224/17054826340/new-snowden-doc-reveals-how-gchqnsa-us e-internet-to-manipulate-deceive-destroy-reputations.shtml

    "Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2014 @ 5:44pm

    As far as the obstruction charge goes, he did not need to hide that laptop. There is one product, KillDisk, that totally erases everything, and I mean EVERYTHING on the disk, including all formatting and partition data, to where no forensic analysis tool would even detect it was not used.

    Its a wonder the government did not try to plant something like child porn on his computer. As one person said on Coast to Coast AM, the other night, the goverment can put anything on your computer they want, then they got you where they want you, which is a good reason to use KillDisk, and use it often, so that any "planted" evidence cannot be used against you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 6:40pm

    He made our sponsors look bad, so we went all out.
    We even went after his mom.

    This case was/is about attempting to frighten people into not questioning authority. When those charged with upholding the law of the land are the first to attempt to pervert it, perhaps it is time to examine the whole system.

    While the threats are not good things, It should be fairly clear that he was facing stupid amounts of pressure and was not 'in his right mind' when statements were made.

    I find it telling that even after all of this time, they do not appear to have looked into what Stratfor and similar companies have been up to. I guess having enough power and "friends" means the law isn't applied as it should be.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 9:21pm


    "There is one product, KillDisk, that totally erases everything, and I mean EVERYTHING on the disk, including all formatting and partition data, to where no forensic analysis tool would even detect it was not used."

    There are a ton of programs like KillDisk. They can be effective. But none of them can erase everything so completely that data recovery is impossible. All they can do is make it more difficult (and therefore more expensive).

    But don't pay money for KillDisk or anything like that. There are way too many free options that do exactly the same thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Quixote, Mar 6th, 2014 @ 8:14pm

    American prosecutors have become quite skilled at "stretching" laws to reach Internet-related behavior that communicates some kind of a message, opinion, or information that certain individuals wish to suppress. In this case, Brown has been persecuted for his role in an informational campaign deeply embarrassing to the intelligence community. While it may not have been wise of him to post the link, he certainly did not deserve to face a prison sentence of 100 years.

    Other efforts to restrict freedom of expression are currently on display in New York, where the artist Essam Attia was tracked down and arrested after he unwisely posted fake "NYPD drone" ads (an obvious act of political satire), and where "criminally" deadpan "Gmail confessions" distributed in the "name" of a well-connected academic department chairman lie at the center of a troubling case that is currently awaiting review at the state's highest court in Albany. Apparently many of the same issues as the ones involved in the Brown case (vagueness of the laws, no tangible harm done to anyone) are at stake in the "Gmail confession" case; see the documentation at:


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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