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Government backs off case against journalist who faced decades in prison for posting hyperlink

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The US government has filed a motion to dismiss several charges against journalist Barrett Brown, who was indicted in 2012 for posting a link to leaked documents among other alleged offenses. Today's motion would dismiss eleven identity theft-related charges that stem from Brown's role in a 2011 hack of intelligence company Stratfor. Brown, who worked closely with Anonymous-affiliated hackers, dropped a hyperlink to leaked Stratfor files in an IRC channel. The linked file contained a partial archive of Stratfor's customer database and included credit card information. This led the government to charge Brown with transferring "authentication features" and "means of identification" by posting the hyperlink.

Brown remains charged with one count of possessing devices with unauthorized access in an attempt at fraud. He remains separately charged with three counts of threatening and attempting to spread unauthorized information about a federal agent, stemming from a series of statements on Twitter, and advocacy group Free Barrett Brown. These charges, however, are widely considered less worrying than the fact that Brown was arrested and charged for posting a hyperlink. Brown's laywers and many others argued that saying links "transferred" material posed a threat to freedom of expression, suggesting that the case was a form of retaliation in the wake of the hack. "He neither hosted the file nor was involved in the theft of the information," said defense fund founder Kevin Gallagher. "His intent was purely journalistic and not criminal."

Over the course of his trial, Brown clashed with federal prosecutors, frequently granting interviews about the case to their chagrin. Eventually, he was slapped with a controversial gag order barring him from making public statements about the case that were not "matters of public interest." His prosecution is one of several against hackers involved in Anonymous-related operations, including activist Jeremy Hammond, who was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2013. Brown could initially have faced up to 100 years in prison, although his legal defense fund retweeted a statement saying that these dismissals knock off at least 35 of those years. Like Hammond, he may ultimately reach a plea deal for a reduced sentence.