As connectivity and transparency increases rapidly on a global scale, proliferated by the internet, we are experiencing repercussions in all areas of our lives. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and all other social media outlets are quickly merging our real lives with our digital ones. But there are some corners of the internet where anonymity, one of the web’s core tenants, is still cherished. Though it has come under more fire recently in many forms—anti p2p movements, fights against illicit activity and internet predation—the most recent incarnation may be the most important: the fight against WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is an internet-based organization that offers whistle-blowers a place to submit and publish sensitive documents (governmental/corporate/organizational/religious) while remaining anonymous. Contributors’ identities are kept secret by bouncing the original submission from user to user within the WikiLeaks network, similar to how Tor works. The reason why WikiLeaks is such a game-changer is that right now, national laws against libel, gag-orders and injunctions have no jurisdiction over post-national entities like WikiLeaks.
As you might expect, WikiLeaks doesn’t have many fans in the sectors that it acts to shed light on. They are holding approximately 1.2 million documents and have already published a number of notable leaks including a copy of the standard operating procedures in Guantanamo Bay, information about the Peru “Petrogate” oil scandal, the membership list of the far-right British National Party, and the Minton Report on toxic dumping in Africa by commodities giant Trafigura. A number of pieces have been written in the past few weeks covering the Pentagon’s targeting of WikiLeaks due to possession of a decrypted video showing the alleged killing of civilians via airstrikes in Afghanistan. The video is slated to be released tomorrow, April 5th.
Although the war over WikiLeaks is certainly worthy of attention and support (feel free to donate to WikiLeaks—they need it), the ramifications of this issue are far more expansive than a singular website. In this video interview, WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange talks about the two different roads that journalism can take. One path is that of censorship and control—taken by China and Iran where the solution to those pesky investigate journalists is massive firewalling and policing. The other is where free press trumps injunctions and gag-orders and transparency is the name of the game.
The argument against the first option is relatively simple and compelling. Anyone who wishes to avoid an Orwellian-like society ought to know that as soon as the government controls the media, it is just one small step away from realizing those nightmarish scenarios. Take North Korea for example: one doesn’t have to be a libertarian to argue that once propaganda and press are synonymous, civilians are more susceptible to brainwashing. Moving away from the totalitarian North Korea, a more salient example is China’s censorship laws and Google’s recent decision to pull out. Another example of government control over media is during the Iranian elections and subsequent protests, where the government prevented syndicated news sources from publishing anything about the protests and bloodshed. People turned to sites like Twitter in order to report news from the front lines of the protests. As journalism evolves along with the internet, oppressive regimes will attempt to control each outlet in an ongoing game of whack-a-mole.
The argument against freedom of the press rests mostly on the issue of national security. The leaking of sensitive information, say troop movement or patrol routes, could lead to people getting killed. Information with even larger repercussions like nuclear codes or weapons research projects is more aptly categorized as espionage. But these arguments don’t hold water in the debate over WikiLeaks and investigative journalism. These organizations are attempting to expose corruption and undo cover-ups, not release national secrets.
As the world converges to the point where a decision must be made about anonymity, censorship and freedom of the press, we need to make a concerted effort to preserve the independence of journalism and reporting—otherwise we might not have anything to read on our fancy next-gen iPads. To the governments and corporations that look upon WikiLeaks with anger and fear, I’m reminded of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
UPDATE: WikiLeaks has released their video of the airstrikes. It’s bad.
(image from wikipedia.org)