You now can get hauled into federal court in the United States for sharing a link in a chat room, apparently.
Barrett Brown, the journalist covering Anonymous-related activities for news outlets like The Guardian, was charged late Friday with 12 charges including linking, identity theft and fraud related to the Stratfor Global Intelligence hack.
The indictment reads, “in that Brown transferred the hyperlink ‘http://wikisend.com/download/597646/stratfor_full_b.txt.gz’ from the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel called ‘#AnonOps’ to an IRC channel under Brown’s control called ‘#ProjectPM,’ said hyperlink provided access to data stolen from the company Stratfor Global Intelligence, to include in excess of 5,000 credit card account numbers.”
Brown, who's also writing a book about Anonymous, shared a link that thousands of people have shared before him. Brown is not charged with hacking into Stratfor, mind you, just linking. In fact, Brown's involvement with Stratfor was more as a press laison than anything else.
As someone who has been in and around Anonymous since 2008 as either as an activist or journalist, Brown’s indictment is downright terrifying. I’m not the only one that thinks so either.
Gawker’s Adrian Chen called this indictment “frightening because it seems to criminalize linking,” and he’s right. There is nothing in the language of the indictment that clarifies when it is okay to link to documents Anonymous puts publicly online.
I’ve linked to “stolen information” countless times in articles I have written about Anonymous activities, and I know of other journalists and bloggers who have done the same. Besides articles, I’ve also retweeted Anonymous posts, posts that contained information that could be classified as stolen. There is nothing in Brown’s indictment that clarifies whether sharing links in this manner is illegal either.
“Worryingly, there is no specific information to indicate what, if anything, differentiates Brown’s behavior from that of any Twitter user simply retweeting the link to those files,” wrote Lorraine Murphy at The Daily Dot.
Who else retweeting dodgy information will be arrested?
Immediately following news of Brown's indictment, Internet activists, journalists and bloggers protested by tweeting the link that got Brown arrested, under #RightToLink.
Asher Wolf, an online privacy advocate and creator of CryptoParty, led the charge with:
It has been tweeted more than 230 times. Many #RightTo Link tweets argued that criminalizing hyperlinking and sharing hyperlinks infringes on free speech, but the hashtag failed to draw many First Amendment activists. As of Monday evening, #RightToLink had collected just under 1,600 individual mentions according to Topsy. One of my favorites tweets, as it encapsulates the fear, comes from VinceintheBay:
"It's a slippery slope. What's next? No copy + pasting? No control + F? No right clicking? WTF?! #RightToLink #WarOnLinks"
VinceintheBay’s tweet may seem hyperbolic, but there is the Richard O’Dwyer case to consider. The feds tried for two years to extradite O'Dwyer, a British citizen, for creating a site that linked to copyright-infringing material (a.k.a. Hollywood movies). Unlike Kim DotCom’s Megaupload, O’Dwyer’s TVShack never hosted actual content -- it was a link aggregator like Reddit.
O’Dwyer managed to avoid extradition last week by signing an agreement to pay $32,000 to “victims whose copyrights were infringed by TVShack," a sum which represents the profit O’Dwyer made from ad sales on his site.
Will Brown be as "lucky"?
Image courtesy of Barrett Brown's YouTube channel