Wikileaks: Whistle-blowing, Censorship, Persecution, Retribution, Transparency, and the Future of Freedom on the Internet

In the end, whether you like what Wikileaks has been doing lately or not, your freedom and mine hangs direly on defending its right to do it. Powerful people have been embarrassed, and have claimed the right and necessity to 'do something about it' -- yet curiously they have not even attempted to deny that what has been said is in fact the truth. Indeed, their most solid defense so far has been to claim that what Wikileaks does "isn't journalism", because it only provides access to the raw, unadulterated, unspun truth. It's a pretty sick state of affairs when the wealthy and powerful can try to convince the masses that an organization should be crushed for committing the crime of telling the truth about them -- and be taken seriously.

"Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

-- Voltaire

Clearly I've not been the first to speak up on the situation with Wikileaks. Like most real political situations of this magnitude, it isn't simple, and I wanted to treat it with the nuance it deserves. At the same time though, I don't want to dilute the take-home message which is simply this: freedom of speech is very, very important. It's worth the cost to defend it, and even if it can be proved that Wikileaks has been damaging in the short run to government and public interests, this is not a good enough reason to support shutting it down, blackballing it, or otherwise quashing its role in exposing truth about government or corporate interests.

I don't want to dilute the take-home message which is simply this: freedom of speech is very, very important

Some people have argued that Wikileaks went too far. I'm inclined to agree -- there are a number of cases where they revealed information that wasn't particularly useful, while at the same time was damaging to individual people or to diplomatic relations that would probably have been better left alone. It is really awful that some US-sympathizers were outed by cables which revealed their personal identities, undoubtedly putting them at risk (although there is still no reported evidence of any successful retaliations against them as far as I'm aware). This was due to inadequate redaction (editing out personally-identifying information) from documents. I do think it has to be recognized that the task of redacting tens of thousands of documents with a small volunteer staff in sufficient rapidity for the information to be useful for democratic decision-making would put enormous pressure on the organization, so that a few errors are almost inevitable.

Some others have pointed out that the Wikileaks organization is hypocritically very opaque with respect to investigations of its own methods or funding. This seems to be quite true.

And as for Julian Assange, the impression I have from his own writings and quotes available online as well as the available news about him is that he's a narcissistic, pompous jerk with a god complex. These are traits associated closely with both charismatic leaders and sociopathic criminals. The line between the two can be pretty fuzzy.

So if we're given a choice of funding different internet muckraking, whistle-blowing sites that anonymously publish leaked information, maybe Wikileaks isn't your best option. Maybe it's a good thing that one of Assange's disaffected colleagues, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has started a new project to provide a more organizationally-transparent and democratically-answerable organization in OpenLeaks. But that's unproven, and until then, Wikileaks is the one organization currently doing this kind of work.

"What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?"

-- Thomas Jefferson

Yet, the same methods were also used to reveal some far more controversial and far more useful information, such as the Apache helicopter shooting incident in which journalists and civilians were gunned down by US soldiers -- demonstrating not only the real face of violence in war, but also the psychologically-damaging effects on US combatants. Those men need help, whether they realize it or not. They absolutely shouldn't be trusted with guns in a occupied territory crowded with innocent civilians.

Who was going to report this? The dead journalists? The soldiers who murdered them? The Pentagon covering its own backside? Or an independent site willing to release information leaked to them by an insider who felt he was doing the right thing? It seems to me that we need muckraking organizations like Wikileaks if we want to hold our government and its agents responsible to the people for their behavior.

We may have to accept the costs of diplomatic inconvenience in order to keep such channels open for the times when we really need them. That may simply be the cost of preserving (or at this point, recovering) an open and democratic civilization.

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."

-- Thomas Jefferson

Education is essential to democracy. It's obvious that without accurate information, the people cannot possible make accurate choices. How can you know whether you need fewer or more police if you don't know how many you have or what their affects have been on society? How can you know whether a war is justified if you don't understand its motivations or the nature of the "enemy"? How can you know whether the military is worthy of your trust if you don't really know what it's doing?

"In a free society we're supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, then we're in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it."

-- Ron Paul

The shocking social changes that surfaced in the 1920s and ushered in the 20th century were the result of many economic and technological changes. But it was also a reaction to the horror of World War I, only brought home after the war by veterans who had seen it first hand.

The shocking social change of the 1960 was similarly motivated by multiple events, but again, one of the major triggers was the horror from the conflict in Viet Nam. But that happened during the war because the new technology of television news brought the horror right into American living rooms.

Many people questioned the wisdom of this. But the protests that rose up in the US eventually led to the cessation of US involvement in Viet Nam -- the horror of the people to what their government was doing in their name actually had a chance to stop the action in the first place. Information technology had caught up again with military technology.

The turmoil of that time also lead to the time of Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers and the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigation into Watergate -- arguably the best real instances of the media earning its keep as the "Fourth Estate" by exposing corruption in government. These incidents have a number of close parallels to the situation with Wikileaks.

"EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time."

-- Daniel Ellsberg

Since then, though, this strong media role has been eroded. The US government and the powerful corporations who wield so much power within it have taken steps to deal with this "problem": the military has exercised more and more control over journalist oversight of their activities, always citing "safety of the troops" to defend this active censorship. The corporate sector has consolidated mainstream media, especially television news, to the point where there are now "single chokepoints" which can be used to censor stories their management doesn't like.

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."

-- Thomas Jefferson

After a few years of simmering, we now have a media culture filled not merely with misinformation, but with disinformation: news stories crafted from false information with the deliberate intent of eliciting a politically-desired response from an ignorant populace. It is perhaps telling that this word "disinformation" was borrowed from Russian during the Soviet era, where it specifically described the kind of state-sponsored yellow journalism made infamous through Pravda. Today, of course, it is not Pravda but Fox News that is infamous for spreading such propaganda!

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

-- Thomas Jefferson

The internet and the free software that supports it has come to the rescue. Consider the foundations of the Wikileaks site at its height:

These are tools of democracy and freedom, specifically designed to be resistant to tampering by the powerful, specifically designed to empower the weak. It's pretty hard to imagine government or corporate sources creating these things without building in backdoors or other tools by which they could be subverted. So it really comes as no surprise how important free software has been to running a site like Wikileaks.

The truth is often the enemy of powerful corporations and governments, and Wikileaks was a thorn in their sides

The internet however, is complicated, and ultimately depends on links. Some of those are necessarily subject to attack. One of these is the question of who will host a site like Wikileaks and whether they can be persuaded to reject them on the basis of allegations or official demands for censorship. Amazon, for example, canceled Wikileaks on the bizarre theory that its leaked diplomatic cables were in violation of its standards for copyright adherence. This is absurd on the face of it, but even the suggestion of it argues against the validity of copyright in a society that values freedom of expression -- clearly this is a "chilling effect"!

It's more likely, though that this claim was simply an excuse. The real reason is that the truth is often the enemy of powerful corporations and governments, and Wikileaks was a thorn in their sides.

"Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people."

-- Thomas Jefferson

So what about the response? What about "Operation Payback"?

It's been labeled in information crime terms as a "distributed denial of service" (DDOS) attack. Certainly the aim is to maliciously retaliate against companies that the "Anonymous" group is opposed to and many of these have lately been due to the actions taken against Wikileaks.

"The Internet cannot function if web sites are frequently blocked by crowds, just as a city cannot function if its streets are constantly full of protests. But before you support a crackdown on Internet protests, consider what they are protesting: in the Internet, users have no rights. As the Wikileaks case has demonstrated, what we do in the Internet, we do on sufferance."

-- Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman, though, has claimed that this is a misrepresentation. He compares the actions instead to a mass demonstration, saying that this is the virtual equivalent of protesters picketing businesses they consider unethical (and therefore interfering with their business). He notes in particular that no computers are being cracked in these operations, which distinguishes them from true "DDOS attacks".

I have to admit I was initially swayed by the arguments that Operation Payback was nothing more than a collection of vengeful and ultimately childish DDOS attacks, but Stallman's argument is pretty persuasive. If what he describes as the mechanism of these actions is true, it makes the situation considerably different from an ethical perspective.

Instead of considering the actions of a few, using massive automation to interfere with commerce, we have the actions of many, using their presence, to do the same. That's a different thing entirely, because it represents a different balance of power. These are also not "first strikes". The organizations being hit have taken direct action to harass or threaten the freedom of others -- ranging from their own DDOS attacks to exercise of corporate power to threaten and coerce private individuals and prevent their rights of association with organizations like Wikileaks.

"Any system of prior restraint of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity."

-- Supreme Court of the Unites States, Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51, 57, 58 (1965)

These kinds of choices are going to surface again. If we want to remain (or become) free as a global civilization, then we must have a free internet. The internet is too important a part of our civilization now for us to ignore the impact from such choices. Lives could literally depend on it.

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