Wikileaks tests internet freedom
Wikileaks bugs me because I don’t know whether to condemn or praise what it has done with the recent release of diplomatic communications.
Getting some context
To recap, wikileaks, a Swedish organization led by Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, got its hands on roughly 250,000 pages of communications between American diplomats and other government. The materials were acquired in the same illegal fashion as things like the Pentagon papers, information about Watergate, or Valerie Plame’s ties to the CIA, but the reaction could not have been more different.
In the case of the Pentagon papers, the US government went through the traditional legal channels to try to stop publication and lost. In the case of Watergate, Deep Throat, the government information was spilled the beans on the inner working of the White House, was left untouched. And in the Plame affair, the only indicted person found his sentence commuted by the President.
A strong reaction
However, in the case of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, has been called a US traitor despite the fact that he’s not a US citizen. He’s also landed on an Interpol list over allegation that he did not use a condom during sex, a violation of Swedish law.
Meanwhile, Amazon booted Wikileaks off its hosting services, Paypal stopped providing donation services to Wikileaks, and EveryDNS stopped providing web addressing services for wikileaks.org. Effectively, there seems to have been a concerted effort to keep Wikileaks offline by any means necessary. At the current time, the site has moved to a new address in Switzerland: wikileaks.ch
Examining the reaction
To be honest, I haven’t read any of the papers wikileaks. In fact, I wasn’t paying much attention to them even as the cables were released. I thought the leak was interesting but since it was based on documents that were old and not classified top secret, I figured that it probably was mostly gossip (as someone who travelled a fair amount, I ended up spending a fair amount of time around diplomatic folks and it seems that this type of gossip was always in the background).
And, based on most of the reporting, it turned out that yes, indeed, it was mostly gossip about powerful people. There were a few revelations about some of the cross-country negotiations (eg. Saudi pushing the US to bomb Iran) but, for the most part, nothing there that anyone in diplomatic circle would not be aware off.
What was there, though, was the fact that such gossip exists and thus, it kind of pierced the appearance that diplomacy is based on complex assessments and studies. It destroyed the myth of the diplomat as someone who put their own opinion aside and based their decision on facts. And that, to most of the people diplomatic circle, was quite embarrassing.
In and of itself, that wasn’t enough to warrant my interest though. What changed my view, and the reason I decided to devote this week’s entry to Wikileaks is the fact that the internet industry, traditionally a space where libertarianism seem to foster, seemed to act differently this time.
Out of step with past reactions
While many digeratis have come out in the defense of hackers, copyright pirates, and other free speech hedge cases, the online reaction seemed to now be moving the other way. Amazon, for example, has been a supporter of the EFF in the past.
Meanwhile, David Ulevitch, the founder of DynDNS, was profiled by the New York Times in 2007 and the following was an interesting take-away from the article:
Mr. Ulevitch shies away from the idea that OpenDNS is part of the computer security market, which so far has grown to billions of dollars in revenue while doing little to stem the tide of malware that now pervades the Internet.
“I don’t want to be seen as a security company,” he said. “They live off the bad guys.”
Then, there was also the case of Paypal, which was initially founded with a libertarian ethos and the goal to create an alternate currency not dominated by any government. A 2005 Reason magazine article lamented some of the departure and reminded people of the history:
Thiel and Levchin had hoped PayPal would grow to become an extra-governmental system of currency, something reminiscent of the world described in Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, in which programmers use encryption to create an offshore data haven free from government control.
But those all points to pre-existing situation that would justify why all those organization would support Wikileaks over the last 4 years (according to Wikipedia, it was founded in 2006). It also would explain why all those organizations supported Wikileaks when it published the Standard Operating Procedures for Guantanamo Bay in 2007, a set of documents it clearly didn’t own. And the same crowd also seemed OK with Wikileaks distributing screenshots from Sarah Palin’s email mailbox in 2008. When, in 2009, thousands of emails related to climate research were distributed again through Wikileaks, there didn’t seem to be an issue to host them. And when 500,000 private text messages sent and received during the 9/11 disaster were released through wikileaks, there wasn’t much controversy.
In fact, all those documents were released BEFORE wikileaks even joined Amazon as a host and wikileaks moved that content to the Amazon cloud because it was looking for a more hack-proof host provider (at the time, though, they did not move the illegally acquired Iraq war documents they were distributing to Amazon).
So the fact that Wikileak is a host of documents that they didn’t own is hardly news. It is, really, at the core of their existence and mission. The trove of data they had was move to Amazon and it made news in tech circles that they were moving that way. Yet Amazon didn’t do a thing about it until this week, when they finally gave them the boot, saying:
WS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them. There were several parts they were violating. For example, our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.”
Under Amazon’s own terms, the documents that wikileaks was posting when it first came to Amazon could be construed as “causing injury to person and entity.” Leaks inherently do so and it has been a tenet of good journalism that leaks can cause injuries. I am sure that some of the documentaries Netflix is distributing over the Amazon platform do cause injury to a person or entity (as journalism, good documentary making can reveal truths that can be injurious to certain parties) and yet I am not seeing Amazon asking Netflix to move off its cloud.
So the question, for anyone with cloud-based offerings now is what to do. If you are a publisher of any content, do you run servers in the cloud and augment them with your own infrastructure so content that may be deemed too hot to handle can be moved to servers others than the cloud ones?
A perspective from the courts
Wikileaks, to a large extent, is a case that has been 13 years in the making. In 1997, with ACLU vs. Reno, The United States Supreme Court established the broadest right to free speech on the internet, by including the following text in their decision:
As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.
Opponents of wikileaks ought to consider those words. In that decision, the court basically extended first amendment support to content on the internet. For the unaware, the first amendment to the US constitution reads as follows (the emphasis is mine):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
But in the brave new world of cloud computing and the modern internet, it doesn’t seem to be abuse by the government that we have to fear but rather abuse by private entities, who seem to set the bar at a much higher level. And that seems to be a very worrisome trend.
The news challenge
Good journalism sometimes puts entities and individuals at risk in order to ensure that our society as a whole is aware of what is being done in our name. However, it often makes us squirm because it exposes things that are often disagreeable. But often, the only way to correct mistakes by our government is to air them in public. In the august word of Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman“. In a way, Wikileaks is walking in Brandeis footsteps and revealing to us all that there are no secrets, only information you don’t yet have and in the process, it forcing all of us to think hard about what we want journalism to look like in the 21st century.