Lulz and Leg Irons: In the Courtroom with Weev
"You consider yourself a hero, of sorts" - Federal Judge Susan Wigenton at the sentencing of Weev.
In November, Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer was convicted of hacking into an AT&T database containing the email addresses of iPad owners. But the email addresses AT&T claimed he stole were on publicly accessible web pages. Weev's group, Goatse Security, just had to guess the URLs.
Weev and his partners compiled 114,000 addresses, sent them to Gawker, and shamed AT&T epically. Supporters argued that he had done nothing illegal—that his prosecution was the latest warning shot against anyone able to use computers to embarrass power. His charges carried a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
On the morning of March 18, I was sitting with friends at the Federal Courthouse in Newark, waiting to hear how long Weev would spend in jail.
I didn't go there to write an article. I went because his conviction was wrong, and my friends and I cared for him. I meant to be another body filling the courtroom, to provide whatever support that's good for.
It’s useful to know that Weev is also a notorious troll. He's been profiled as such in the New York Times, for which he was photographed underlit in computer-screen blue like a gleefully malevolent djinn. While he's instantly likeable in person, he's done things that have offended. He claimed credit for the 2009 Amazon service disruption that led the online retailer to mistakenly reclassify all their gay books as porn. Weev is an official internet asshole—something prosecutors were perhaps banking on when they decided to make him an example.
Before his sentencing, Weev held a press conference on the courthouse steps. Two guys from the Bronx wore Guy Fawkes masks. Beyond a half moon of cameramen, a few dozen friends huddled together against the bone-freezing cold.
Weev told the press that he was going to jail "for arithmetic," then read from Keats's "The Fall of Hyperion." One after the other, his friends embraced him, warm and hard. Official internet asshole or not, Weev inspires ride-or-die love.
Four hours earlier, we'd been downing whiskey to celebrate Weev's last night of freedom. His party took over the sort of fantasy loft that woos broke artists over to Newark. Journalists drank alongside hackers, activists, eyepatch-wearing documentarians, and candy-haired girls with lip rings. A lanky, lovely security expert swung from a rope. Livestreamer Tim Pool twittered that "all the little red dots on the government monitor are in the same room." Weev spent the night answering a Reddit AMA.
As a condition of his bail, Weev wasn't allowed to use a computer with a keyboard. He bounced around holding a tablet like a life-preserver.
At the courthouse, guards refused entry to journalists for carrying cameras, or, in the case of an Esquire reporter, an audio recorder.
They liked Weev's friends even less. They forced us to throw out the Guy Fawkes masks we were holding, glowered when we laughed, and kicked out several girls for tweeting. Our thumbs itched with smartphone withdrawal. Friends of Weev whispered, "Fuck the Feds," and, "This is why Aaron [Swartz] killed himself."
Before Judge Widgenton turned to Weev, she sentenced a little person in shackles. An undocumented migrant, the man used a translator to apologize desperately for a drug crime. He'd spent 17 months in jail awaiting sentencing and testified against his brother-in-law. The judge let him off with time served. The tiny man shuffled off between his guards. No friends waited for him.
Weev's sentencing began. The prosecutors—one bald, one majestically coiffed— dripped with contempt. "He and his cohorts," "Security-research group, so called." They argued that his skills should lead to additional time in jail, quoting from his Reddit AMA to prove it. They explained the term "script kiddies." The gallery snickered. The guards told us to shut up.
Weev was unrepentant. "The internet is becoming bigger than the law can contain." he said. "The law was written when Reagan was so senile he thought War Games was a documentary… This court's decision is wrong, and if it understood what it was doing to the Constitution, it would feel ashamed."
Weev tried to touch his tablet. Suddenly, giants in hoodies pounced on him. Weev is small. Their huge backs walled him off. They pounded his head into the table, cuffed him, and dragged him from the room. Weev's friends sprang to their feet. This is the cruel trick of seeing a loved one handcuffed. You want to protect them. You can't. A black-haired girl from last night's party balled up in tears.
I drew compulsively to keep the bile down in my throat.
A guard brought the defense attorney Weev'sbelongings, wrapped hobo-style in a Guy Fawkes bandana.
Weev returned in shackles, grinning.
The prosecutors spun the tale of a brilliant young sociopath. They quoted his Reddit AMA three times, then some drama around Encylclopedia Dramatica. They called him "highly intelligent" to justify his sentence. They led a populist diatribe against individuals with "special [computer] skills" and the power they wielded over the unskilled common man.
The prosecutors didn't understand the internet. They didn't want to. They resented those who did. They resented their arrogance, their irreverence, their ease with the machinery that runs the world. Hackers were the new witches. Power needed them and hated them at once. So they'd make an example of the ones who embarrassed them.
Judge Wigenton sentenced Weev to 41 months of prison, three years of probation, and $73,000 restitution to AT&T.
He will serve more years than the Steubenville rapists.
She called him a "disappointment," a "danger to his community." Most of all, she seemed angry that he wasn't afraid.
"Hail, Eris," he yelled as the guards led him away. If this were a movie, here's where the crowd would have raised their fists in unison. We are Weev. We are Spartacus. A few did raise their fists. But the rest stood as if slapped silent. The black-haired girl doubled over with hard, ugly sobs.
Lulz seemed terribly fragile next to leg irons.
One friend explained that the term danger to the community would make it harder for Weev to get parole.
Weev tweeted his federal prison number: 10378-010. He is planning an appeal.
In 1968 someone scribbled on a Parisian wall, "Fight foul and fast, my friend. The old world is behind us."
In 2013, we filed out of the Newark courthouse in the cold.
Illustrations by Molly Crabapple, drawn live in the courtroom