The media has had a hard time labeling Barrett Brown. "Anonymous spokesman" doesn't fit because Anonymous is too anarchic and loosely organized to have a spokesman. For the same reason, he's not the collective's "self-proclaimed" spokesman, though he did have more than his share of media appearances. The best option seems to be simply to call Brown a "hacktivist" -- this conveys the idea that he agitates for a cause (Internet freedom) and that he uses quasi-legal means to do so -- and move on.
But now that Brown faces a century in prison on a raft of federal criminal charges, his supporters have settled on a different term to describe Brown: journalist.
Brown's legal defense fund dispatched a press release yesterday calling his arrest and prosecution "a prime example of government persecution of journalists who challenge the status quo."
Brown, his supporters say, was being targeted for his work with ProjectPM, the crowd-sourced research effort he helped establish to comb through leaked documents about government security and intelligence contractors. He was also working on a book for Amazon tentatively called Anonymous: Tales From Inside The Accidental Cyberwar.
The release continues:
The FBI wanted to get their hands on his work before the world did. Barrett asserted the reporter's privilege and now faces over 100 years in prison. He was charged with obstruction of justice for attempting to keep his sources and work product away from government agents. Additionally he was charged with twelve counts related to usage of and linking to source materials.
And so they raided his apartment, seized his computers and buried him in federal criminal charges.
Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Guardian in March, gave fullest voice to the Brown-as-persecuted-journalist theme. The first time the government raided Brown's apartment, they were looking for material related to the hacks of two security firms with government ties, HB Gary and Stratfor.
He was ultimately charged in connection with the Stratfor hack, basically for sharing a link. The other charges are only tangentially related to the hacks. One indictment alleges that he and his mom concealed evidence from the FBI. Another concerns threats against an FBI agent he posted to YouTube and Twitter.
Greenwald concludes that "it is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to [his] journalism."
Indeed, the government is clearly making an example of Brown, just like they were trying to do with Aaron Swartz, who, facing similarly trumped-up charges, hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment while awaiting trial.
But Swartz is more sympathetic than Brown. In his case, he violated an obscure and badly outdated computer law by downloading reams of academic research journals off an MIT network. Brown, on the other hand, was poking through potentially sensitive security-related documents, an activity which, whether these particular documents merited secrecy, the government has a legitimate interest in preventing.
Plus, Swartz never posted any unhinged YouTube rants threatening any law enforcement agents or their families.
Even if Brown did some journalism -- and he did -- does that automatically make him a journalist? And does his prosecution "underscore the threat to journalists" from the federal government, as his legal defense team argues? Maybe, but Brown is not the Associated Press. His code of ethics seems a bit too malleable and ill-defined.
The better question is what the government's overzealous prosecution means for government transparency. There, the answer is troubling.