Toronto Media Co-op

Local Independent News

More independent news:
Do you want free independent news delivered weekly? sign up now
Can you support independent journalists with $5? donate today!

Tickling the Dragon: Byron Sonne and Crown Prosecution


by Megan Kinch

The beefy arm of the state does not understand internet culture.
The beefy arm of the state does not understand internet culture.

Back on November 4th, 2009, Bryon Sonne wrote a group email to Toronto hacker collective hacklab titled “Tickling the Dragon”, in which he wrote, “I want to test the system”. In the months and weeks leading up to the G20 Byron, a licensed systems security professional and member of hacklab, did just that, buying legal chemicals, some to raise flags and some for his home chemistry experiments and other benign purposes. He also took part in public, online discussions about state surveillance and the security measures being taken at the summit. After taking photos of the security fence attracted the attention of police, they pulled over a TTC bus he was on and arrested him. Byron would never enter his house again, but the police would.  They found a chemistry lab in his basement, and started the process of prosecuting him on explosives charges. Despite having a legal defense pamphlet in his pocket when he was initially detained, he spoke for hours to police without legal counsel. He spent 330 days in pre-trial detention, during which his wife of more than a decade served him divorce papers. He lost his house, his marriage, his business and his freedom. As Byron sat in the Osgoode courthouse with his life in the balance, his lawyer argued that “he got what only the dragon can do: it breathed fire all over him.”

The case against Byron can only be understood in the larger context of G20 state security and the persecution of anti-g20 activists, some of whom were guilty of nothing but thought crimes. Jaggi Singh pled guilty to a counseling charge, as a result of a speech near the perimeter security barrier, in which he urged listeners to 'tear down this fence that divides us', Dan Kellar and Julian Ichim may be facing jail time for blog posts which mentioned the false names of undercover police who infiltrated activist movements - even though photos of the officers had already been posted on the internet. A complex conspiracy case against local organizers ended in six people pleading guilty to lesser charges, so that 11 others could go free (including one who would have been facing deportation) and avoid a mountain of legal costs and an uncertain verdict.

The huge price tag (well in excess of a billion dollars), the temporary police state in the downtown core, the widespread police violence and misconduct, and the largest mass arrests in Canadian history - over 1,000 people – have struck a nerve with the public.

The Crown has to see Byron's trial through to the bitter end in order to justify the money spent in the name of protection from G20-inspired acts of terror (the actual Summit 'mayhem' which occured, the burning of 4 police cars and the smashing of a several windows, is a toll less than many Montreal hockey riots). Byron Sonne is one of the last major G20-related cases being contested before the court; the State is under pressure to go for the win, or at least to not have everything blow up in their face.

I used an explosion metaphor there. It is clear from only a short time in court that, by the standards of the Crown attorneys prosecuting Byron, this could be considered criminal counselling. Also according to the Crown, an adult owning three airsoft rifles indicates an ‘obsession with firearms’. Byron discussed explosives in a chat ‘no fewer than 5 times’- but the defense notes that the subject of the chat was actually about how stupid people blow themselves up when trying to make explosives at home, and involved nominating a man for a Darwin award. A conversation about the zombie apocalypse was also brought up.

Byron had a home chemistry lab, made a potato cannon a few years ago, is a licensed  security consultant and is interested in state surveillance; he is, in short, guilty of being a professional nerd. Being interested in sharing information and skills, the erosion of privacy, and the growth of state surveillance, is common to the tech subsectors of internet culture.

The Crown, Elizabeth Nadeau, uses this 'evidence' to argue simultaneously that Sonne is a criminal mastermind ,and that he is pathologically stupid.  On the criminal mastermind count, she constantly mentions in court that he was a security expert, and refers to the inability of police to access the part of his harddrive that was encrypted. Yet she simultaneously argues that this mastermind publicly posted photos of things he intended to use as weapons – things like the potato cannon and an electrolysis cell (used in chemical reactions) - on flikr and twitter. Sonne also ordered hazardous chemicals from the U.S., but used his home address and credit card. There is a huge disconnect in the Crown's assertions here. Nadeau made other ridiculous statements, such as the Toronto Media Co-op/Alternative Media Centre broadsheet “The Spoke” being an underground paper for anarchists, despite the fact that it was a) not intended for anarchists and b) distributed openly online and at the Alternative Media Centre.

Indeed, if this was any normal case of someone with a basement laboratory that contained such dangerous chemicals as acetone (nail polish remover), hydrogen peroxide (hair bleach) and hexamine tablets (camping fuel starters), it would never have come to trial. Nadeau argues that Byron possessed baking soda, but that instead of having it in a box in his refrigerator had it in a labeled container in his lab, which she finds 'suspicious'.  Only because this got caught up in the G20 prosecution- nay persecution- of activism and political thinking during the billion dollar orgy of the security apparatus, were things like chat conversations about zombies, air gun ownership and potato cannon photos the subject of extensive legal scrutiny.

The only logical explanation is the one that Bryon himself provides in an email he wrote to Kate Milberry, an academic who sent an open email to hacklab people about doing research. Byron wrote: “I've ordered all sorts of chemical precursors and lab equipment in order to get 'the man' interested in me. With no success.” Sonne's lawyers follow this line of thinking to say that he was trying to set off red flags in ordering chemicals but had no intention of making anything out of them. Which makes sense, given that he was arrested several days before the G20 Summit began, with major protests already well underway and no explosives present in his lab, let alone completed bombs.

Two days after closing arguments, neighbours of Sonne's old house in the upscale neighborhood of Forest Hill were told to stay away from their windows, as a container was unearthed from the backyard which contained 'dangerous explosive substances'. Live on the CP24, police took the yellow home depot bucket down to the Leslie Street spit bird sanctuary and attempted to blow it up. It wouldn’t explode though, because it wasn’t explosive, although they did manage to get it to burn.  The substance turned out to be potassium chlorate, and there is a restriction on buying or selling more than 1 kg of the substance but not on possessing it.  Nadeau was reduced to arguing that it could be dangerous because a child could have got into the yard, dug up the bucket, opened it and then eaten it, an argument that the judge didn’t seem to buy.

The question is: why did police wait so long to excavate the backyard? They had the chat log evidence that they used to justify the search in their possession for years. It is suspicious timing that the chat ‘came to their attention’ only after the trial was done and the judge was deliberating. The CP24 coverage of the non-explosion is similar to the ‘trial by media’ that other G20 accused have faced, and is nothing less than pure theatre.  

None of this means that the Crown has a case, especially as our legal system supposedly functions on the basis of 'innocent until proven guilty'. But by engaging in trial by media, nearly a year of pre-trial detention, and an expensive and absurd court case, the dragon is making sure that Byron gets burned either way.

Want more grassroots coverage?
Join the Media Co-op today.

Creative Commons license icon Creative Commons license icon

About the poster

Trusted by 10 other users.
Has posted 61 times.
View Megan Kinch's profile »

Recent Posts:

Megan Kinch (Megan Kinch)
Toronto Ontario
Member since December 2009


is a writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.

1354 words

The site for the Toronto local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.