WikiLeaks has been the subject of much discussion over the past few months – some impassioned, some illogical, and some downright dim – regarding the saga now referred to as Cablegate. According to the good old American media, Julian Assange and his organization have been walking the line between terrorists and modern-day heroes.
This is not the first time a newsgathering organization (read the “Press,” and yes, WikiLeaks does qualify as a newsgathering organization) has been threatened with prosecution – remember the Watergate Scandal or the Pentagon Papers? There are other allegations against Assange that have sprung up over the past few months, but the global manhunt directed at him and WikiLeaks leaves a bad taste in the mouth, among other things.
The reaction of governments, corporations, and the media to WikiLeaks shows a disturbing lack of understanding of where the world is, or more importantly should be, today.
First, governments and the media clearly fail to acknowledge that, once digitized, information can (and will) move around faster than it can be controlled. The publishing of the cables, by the way, like in the cases of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, cannot be treated as a crime.
Second, the release of these cables raises serious concern over the quality of diplomats the world is creating today. Cables mentioning Gadaffi of Libya’s predilection to blondes, Mugabe of Zimbabwe being referred to as “a crazy old man,” or the relationship between Putin and Berlusconi being compared to a “bromance” do not speak very highly of the diplomatic corps. (Many of the cables provide insightful commentary on politics, especially with regards to the Middle East and War on Terror – but again, none that isn’t already public knowledge.)
Julian Assange himself answered some questions at a live blog session for The Guardian, and pointed out that none of the previous WikiLeaks revelations put anyone in harm’s way. It is not the job of the media to protect the powerful from embarrassment, which has been the only real fallout from the WikiLeaks release.
A Financial Times Op-Ed on the subject brought up a very interesting point from history – a ruling regarding the case of the Pentagon Papers:
“The New York Times and Washington Post were able to defeat President Richard Nixon’s extraordinary prosecution and publish extensive extracts from the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen, partly on the way Near v. Minnesota buttressed the First Amendment, but also because the justices accepted that in areas of national defense and international affairs, the executive possessed great constitutional independence virtually unchecked by the legislative and judicial branch. ‘In the absence of governmental checks and balances,’ wrote Mr Justice Potter Stewart, ‘the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may lie [in these two areas] in an informed and a critical public opinion which alone can protect the values a of a democratic government.’”
Tim Berners-Lee recently spoke about how the future of journalism is deeply interlinked with the ability to mine data available in government and business archives. This is of utmost importance today. WikiLeaks is the beginning, not the end, of this phase in the development of journalism. This is the role that WikiLeaks is fulfilling today in its procurement and release of the Cablegate data. Its prosecution by corporations such as Amazon.com and Paypal paints a disturbing picture for the future of net neutrality.
As the world moves online, digitization increases the discoverability of the good and the bad – and so far, the Web has served as a place for tough stories to be discussed without fear of censorship. The real scandal we should be considering is not what WikiLeaks has done or plans to do, but the attempt of governments to encroach on a freedom the Internet has afforded to the people — the freedom to be heard.