- - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The genius of the Internet is that it seamlessly links from one item to another. The online “community” is without end; there’s always something else to click on.

A federal prosecutor in Texas wants to change that by making it a crime to link to things the government doesn’t want anybody to see.

For more than a year, a young journalist, Barrett Brown, has been held in custody, threatened with spending the rest of his life in prison because he shared a link.

Though the federal government retreated on some of the charges last week, the government’s threat to freedom of speech remains.

Mr. Brown writes for a number of left-leaning outlets, including the London Daily Guardian, Vanity Fair and the Huffington Post. His work drew the attention of the hacking group known as “Anonymous,” and his association with them made him a target of the Justice Department.

In December 2012, he was charged with 12 counts of “aggravated identity theft” and “device fraud” because he pointed out where Anonymous made available 200 gigabytes worth of emails and other data stolen from Stratfor Global Intelligence, a security contractor.

A member of Anonymous, Jeremy Hammond, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the actual crime of stealing the data.

U.S. Attorney Sarah R. Saldana persuaded a grand jury to indict Mr. Brown for these acts: “Brown transferred a hyperlink from an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel to an IRC channel under his control.” That sounds bad, but it isn’t.

It describes the familiar process of cutting and pasting a website link that millions use every day to share a funny YouTube video with a friend. Mr. Brown distributed the link to the Stratfor documents so he could “crowdsource” it, persuading many to work together to find important facts in the large cache of documents.

The government does not argue that Mr. Brown participated in the actual theft, only that once the documents were in the open he merely pointed to them. The government argues that the act of creating a link violates credit card theft laws because one of the thousands of files contained personal credit card information.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been warning of the implications of the government’s pursuit of Mr. Brown. “The right of journalists — or anyone, for that matter — to link to already public information, including sensitive information,” the foundation observes, “is in serious jeopardy if Brown is convicted.”

Three years ago, federal agents arrested Yonjo Quiroa, the owner of the site ChannelSurfing.net, for creating a website that linked to videos of live sporting events. While held without bail, he took a deal to plead to copyright misdemeanor and was deported.

The Obama administration seems to be looking for a test case to punish those who view, read and distribute information it wants to hide. If they can’t get Edward Snowden, maybe they can get someone else for reading and passing on interesting information embarrassing to the government.

Whether on email, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, links are the lifeblood of the Internet. Shut them down, and life at the White House becomes much more convenient.

This was to be “the most transparent administration in history” — Barack Obama himself said so. The First Amendment seems always under government assault.