* By Evan Hansen
* December 6, 2010 |
A truly free press — one unfettered by concerns of nationalism — is apparently a terrifying problem for elected governments and tyrannies alike.
It shouldn’t be.
In the past week, after publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables, secret-spilling site WikiLeaks has been hit with denial-of-service attacks on its servers by unknown parties; its backup hosting provider, Amazon, booted WikiLeaks off its hosting service; and PayPal has suspended its donation-collecting account, damaging WikiLeaks’ ability to raise funds. MasterCard announced Monday it was blocking credit card payments to WikiLeaks, saying the site was engaged in illegal activities, despite the fact it has never been charged with a crime.
Meanwhile, U.S. politicians have ramped up the rhetoric against the nonprofit, calling for the arrest and prosecution and even assassination of its most visible spokesman, Julian Assange. Questions about whether current laws are adequate to prosecute him have prompted lawmakers to propose amending the espionage statute to bring Assange to heel or even to declare WikiLeaks a terrorist organization.
WikiLeaks is not perfect, and we have highlighted many of its shortcomings on this web site. Nevertheless, it’s time to make a clear statement about the value of the site and take sides:
WikiLeaks stands to improve our democracy, not weaken it.
The greatest threat we face right now from Wikileaks is not the information it has spilled and may spill in the future, but the reactionary response to it that’s building in the United States that promises to repudiate the rule of law and our free speech traditions, if left unchecked.
Secrecy is routinely posited as a critical component for effective governance, a premise that’s so widely accepted that even some journalists, whose job is to reveal the secret workings of governments, have declared WikiLeaks’ efforts to be out of bounds.
We should embrace the site as an expression of the fundamental freedom that is at the core of our Bill of Rights.
Transparency, and its value, look very different inside the corridors of power than outside. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama vowed to roll back the secrecy apparatus that had been dramatically expanded under his predecessor, but his administration has largely abandoned those promises and instead doubled-down on secrecy.
One of the core complaints against WikiLeaks is a lack of accountability. It has set up shop in multiple countries with liberal press protections in an apparent bid to stand above the law. It owes allegiance to no one government, and its interests do not align neatly with authorities’. Compare this, for example, to what happened when the U.S. government pressured The New York Times in 2004 to drop its story about warrantless wiretapping on grounds that it would harm national security. The paper withheld the story for a year-and-a-half.
WikiLeaks’ role is not the same as the press’s, since it does not always endeavor to vet information prior to publication. But it operates within what one might call the media ecosystem, feeding publications with original documents that are found nowhere else and insulating them against pressures from governments seeking to suppress information.
Instead of encouraging online service providers to blacklist sites and writing new espionage laws that would further criminalize the publication of government secrets, we should regard WikiLeaks as subject to the same first amendment rights that protect The New York Times. And as a society, we should embrace the site as an expression of the fundamental freedom that is at the core of our Bill of Rights, not react like Chinese corporations that are happy to censor information on behalf of their government to curry favor.
WikiLeaks does not automatically bring radical transparency in its wake. Sites like WikiLeaks work because sources, more often than not pricked by conscience, come forward with information in the public interest. WikiLeaks is a distributor of this information, if an extraordinarily prolific one. It helps guarantee the information won’t be hidden by editors and publishers who are afraid of lawsuits or the government.
WikiLeaks has beaten back the attacks against it with the help of hundreds of mirror sites that will keep its content available, despite the best efforts of opponents. Blocking WikiLeaks, even if it were possible, could never be effective.
A government’s best and only defense against damaging spills is to act justly and fairly. By seeking to quell WikiLeaks, its U.S. political opponents are only priming the pump for more embarrassing revelations down the road.
Evan Hansen is Editor-in-Chief of Wired.com.