When does knowledge become a crime?

Consider the case of Terence Roy Brown who ran afoul of the British authorities for selling terrorist manuals. He was convicted in 2011 for “Possessing/Collecting a record of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”, “Concealing and/or transferring criminal property” and “Dissemination of a terrorist publication”.

R v. Terence Roy Brown
Terence Roy Brown, a citizen of the United Kingdom, ran an online business, in which he advertised and sold an annual edition of a CD-ROM that he called the “Anarchist’s Cookbook” (the title is nearly identical to that of a well-known book called The Anarchist Cookbook). Rather than a single publication, however, these discs contained 10,322 files, some of which were complete publications in their own right. These included terrorist manuals such as the Al-Qaida Manual and instructions for the manufacture of different forms of explosives and the construction of bombs. Other files consisted of instructions for making poisons, how to avoid attracting the attention of authorities when travelling and weaponshandling techniques. In an apparent effort to circumvent the law, Mr. Brown posted disclaimers on the website advertising the publication, stating that the instructions they contained might be illegal or dangerous to perform and were intended for “reading pleasure and historical value only”. It was clear on investigation that Mr. Brown was motivated purely by commercial incentives. It was also apparent that he deliberately had expanded his collection in the immediate aftermath of the July 2005 London bombs and had significantly increased his profit as a result.

In March 2011, Mr. Brown was convicted of seven counts under the Terrorism Act 2000 (section 58) relating to the collection of information that could have been used to prepare or commit acts of terrorism, two counts under the Terrorism Act 2006 (section 2) relating to the dissemination of terrorist publications and an offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 relating to the transfer of criminal property (his use of the profits from his business).

The excuse raised by Mr. Brown at trial was that his activities amounted to no more than the lawful exercise of his right to freedom of expression in relation to material that was freely available on the Internet and that was similar in type, if not volume, to that sold by other online booksellers. The same points were raised during an unsuccessful application to appeal conviction, during which the court ruled that the restriction of Brown’s article 10 rights in relation to material that was likely to assist terrorists was justified and proportionate. The court also affirmed the discretion of the prosecuting authorities not to charge every individual who might have committed an offence, but to consider instead each case on its own merits.”

Source: http://www.unodc.org/documents/frontpage/Use_of_Internet_for_Terrorist_Purposes.pdf

Statement from the Crown Prosecution Service:

Terence Brown made money from producing and selling CD Roms which contained details of step-by-step instructions that could be used by anyone planning or committing a terrorist attack.

He has stated throughout that he has no terrorist sympathies and was simply making a living by gathering together information that was already available on the internet, charging for pulling it together and sending it out on disc.

The law is clear that it is a crime to gather this information without a reasonable excuse or to disseminate material which is clearly intended to be of use to terrorists. A person’s intentions or motivation for doing this is irrelevant. What is significant is the fact you have this material in your possession, or distribute it, and that it can be useful to someone with a terrorist purpose.

Although Brown called his collection The Anarchist Cookbook, it is not the same as the book published in America in the 1970s in protest against American involvement in Vietnam. While Brown used the same title, what he collected and sold had very different content and was on a very different scale – if printed out it would run to tens of thousands of pages – and included hundreds of instructions on making bombs, explosives and poisons such as Ricin.

By their guilty verdicts today, the jury has shown that they do not believe that Brown’s explanation for his actions were reasonable.
Source: http://blog.cps.gov.uk/2011/03/cps-update-wednesday-9-march.html

Mr Roy Brown was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison, later confirmed on appeal.

  1. How close are they to going too far? The UK gets more and more disturbingly draconian by the minute.

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