On Tuesday, I was fortunate to attend the taping of Radio Berkman’s WikiLeaks-themed podcast, hosted by Professors Jonathan Zittrain and Larry Lessig. The podcast, which I highly suggest you give a listen, covered the gamut of issues surrounding WikiLeaks, from its implications on Internet freedom to the internal workings of the organization itself, at least to the best we can surmise.
One of the more interesting bits of the conversation, initially raised by Ethan Zuckerman, is the idea that WikiLeaks has ‘happened’ in three phases: The first, an initial phase of being a neutral arbiter of whistleblowing — WikiLeaks got its start by mostly leaking documents related to globally minor but nonetheless important incidents — a Somali assassination order, the manual for Guantanamo prisoners, the member list for the far-right extremist British National Party. During the second phase, WikiLeaks moved toward what Zuckerman calls “advocacy journalism” with the release of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. Lastly, describes Zuckerman, with the release of the Afghan War Logs and now the Embassy Cables, WikiLeaks has moved toward a less discriminate model of data dumping.
Splitting WikiLeaks into three phases, as several folks note during the podcast, makes it significantly easier for individuals to “get off the bus” so to speak, at points where they begin to feel uncomfortable. For some, that was around the time of ‘Collateral Murder,’ for others, it’s now.
I haven’t publicly expressed my thoughts on the latest leak, nor do I feel the need to; fact is, I supported WikiLeaks wholeheartedly back when they were releasing Internet blacklists, and I supported the release of ‘Collateral Murder.’ On this latest batch of cables (as well as the one before it), I’m ambivalent, but when it comes down to it — and particularly in the wake of reactions, both by companies and my own government — I stand on the side of freedom.
That said, I think there are many discussions to be had on WikiLeaks acting as a firehose, rather than a journalistic entity. There are also many discussions to be had on Julian Assange’s intentions. Some of those conversations happen in the podcast, and others are going on all over the web.
Personally, I’m more concerned with the vital discussion on the implications this is having and will have on Internet freedom.
David Weinberger, who was also present for the podcast, writes: “If we take the war against Wikileaks as a war against the Net, I stand with the Net.” (Weinberger’s thoughts are elaborated in this blog post). I agree, strongly, with Weinberger’s assessment that “Amazon and eBay’s PayPal have decided that they are on the Net but not of the Net” — with all the speculation laid out on the table, it appears that each company acted of their own accord. Amazon doesn’t acknowledge the calls from Senator Joe Lieberman, rather, it claims WikiLeaks violated TOS by posting documents they didn’t have the rights to. PayPal claims illegal activity and that their actions were in response to a letter from State, but State’s PJ Crowley states otherwise (the latest statement, released just before I hit publish, explains a bit further). From where I stand, it looks like these companies, afraid of repercussions, took matters into their own hands rather than waiting for a legal order.
This all makes me terribly uncomfortable. It’s worth noting that these aren’t new tactics – China has done an excellent job of pressuring corporations to behave according to its whims, something my government has condemned. Google, for its part, realized its wrongs four years in and backed out of censoring in China, only to find itself ousted. I wonder what would have happened if Amazon or PayPal had decided to take such a stand.
More laughable than uncomfortable, however, is the idea that the government (or any government) thinks it may actually be able to shut down WikiLeaks (or, well, any site) entirely. Though the site’s original domain, wikileaks.org, was revoked, 507 mirrors have cropped up to date, including one hosted by the vice president of Bolivia. In order to even enter the realm of capability in taking WikiLeaks down, the US would have to be in cahoots with nearly every government on earth (and we know that, based on the cables, that isn’t going to happen). The Internet would have to be shut down entirely.
Again, at this point in the game, it’s rather inconsequential whether one individual supports the release of the Embassy cables or not. In the grand scheme of things, Julian Assange’s arrest and potential extradition to the US are inconsequential. WikiLeaks is here. That’s it, the game is changed. We can argue all day about the ethics of leaking. The US government can lock down information, try to prevent it from being leaked in the first place. Laws can be created to discourage future whistleblowers from putting the information out there in the first place. None of that changes the fact that this happened, that the cables are out there. And I doubt it will stop groups like Anonymous from employing DDoS attacks to (embarass? take down?) their perceived enemies (for more on that, read Evgeny Morozov’s take on the impact of Anonymous).
What is perhaps the most interesting consequence of all this is the effect it will have on my generation, a generation next at bat in this world. As I wrote last week, I do believe we ‘digital natives’ might be viewing this differently than our parents are. And I foresee our views on transparency and secrecy, no doubt still forming, taking shape around this incident and, farther down the road, changing the games of both journalism and government.