Wikileaks is an extraordinary event.
It started off as a not for profit media organisation and a website which published leaked information and has now become an evolving situation which throws into sharp relief one of the most important issues of our time.
It’s not about whether you have enough to eat, a roof over your head or a job. But it is about the the balance between the security of a nation and the right to make information available. And the right to publish it. This is the issue:
How will decisions made by private internet and telecommunications companies about what content they will or won’t allow affect the ability of citizens to carry out informed debate on important matters of public concern? What are the private sector’s obligations and responsibilities to prevent the erosion of democracy?
I’m not getting into the rights and wrongs of the content of Wikileaks. But I would like some discussion on the above.
Consider this published yesterday on CNN’s website by Rebecca MacKinnon.
There isn’t much question that the person who obtained the WikiLeaks cables from a classified U.S. government network broke U.S. law and should expect to face the consequences. The legal rights of a website that publishes material acquired from that person, however, are much more controversial.
There are many prominent Americans — and a great many ordinary Americans — who have made their views clear over the past week that WikiLeaks’ “cablegate” website should not be considered constitutionally protected speech. Others, however, believe equally strongly that now that the material is out, news media and website owners have the right to publish the material.
What is troubling and dangerous is that in the internet age, public discourse increasingly depends on digital spaces created, owned and operated by private companies. The result is that one politician has more power than ever to shut down controversial speech unilaterally with one phone call.
After suffering aggressive cyber attacks last weekend, Assange removed his “cablegate” site from servers in Sweden and purchased a new home for it on Amazon’s web hosting service. On Tuesday, Amazon talked on the phone with the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security.
Shortly thereafter, Amazon booted WikiLeaks.
MacKinnon goes on to say this, which is really the guts of the issue that I want to discuss:
Amazon’s dumping of WikiLeaks at one senator’s request brings into stark relief one of the core problems Americans have grappled with since before our country even existed: Where is the right balance between security, on one hand, and civil liberties, on the other?
..the WikiLeaks Amazon case also highlights a new problem for American democracy — and ultimately for the future of freedom and democracy more globally. A substantial if not critical amount of our political discourse has moved into the digital realm. This realm is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector.
You can read the full CNN article here
Rebecca MacKinnon is a Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, co-founder of the international bloggers’ network Global Voices Online and a founding member of the Global Network Initiative. Her book, “Consent of the Networked,” will be published late next year by Basic Books.