Red Alert

Wikileaks: the balance between security and civil liberty

Posted by on December 4th, 2010

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.

28 Responses to “Wikileaks: the balance between security and civil liberty”

  1. Alwyn says:

    Do you think that we are entitled to know what our politicians get up to in our name?
    I understand, although someone may be able to correct me, that Helen Clark’s papers from her time in office were provided to the National Archives on the condition that they were to be sealed for one hundred years.
    This was told to me by a National Archives employee.
    Do you have any comment on the matter and for the sake of the New Zealand such a prohibition should be ignored?

  2. Bill Bennett says:

    I saw a comment on Twitter to the effect: “Why shouldn’t we be able to see the same information our enemies already have?”

    Presumably it was written by an American.

    But I think it gets right to the heart of the issue. Three million Americans had access to the so-called secret information. There’s no way most, if not all, of it would have already found its way into the hands of various hostile nations.

    So all the fuss and heat about security is not really about security at all – and the anger at Wikileaks is really just about lashing out, revenge and exercising power rather than seeking justice.

  3. Draco T Bastard says:

    ..the WikiLeaks Amazon case also highlights a new problem for American democracy

    It’s not a new problem but the actions of Amazon have highlighted it – the US is not a democracy. It’s a plutocracy owned and run by the rich.

  4. Al1ens says:

    The state can spy on it’s citizens any time it likes.
    It appears that the u.s can spy on other nations citizens any time it likes.
    But heavens forbid dirty dealings and secrets are made public to the world.

    The ‘furore’ over wilkileaks is double standards, hypocrisy and crocodile tears.

  5. Rob says:

    Wikileaks has never published anything that would directly threaten peoples security. Population has a right to know straight up. What these documents are revealing is a whole load of corruption and dishonest behaviour of governments towards each other and their people that should have been known about. Some data should be kept secret and Wikileaks is already doing that I would say it has the balance about right they have their own internal filters for dangerous material to not be leaked.

  6. WallaseyBoy says:

    I engaged in discussion with people on the Berkman website this morning – here’s a link to my contribution

    This is a US context, but I’m not sure that in NZ we have an online environment either that is mature enough to guaranteed free speech – economically, legally, or technically. We’re stuck with an internet (in all its economic, legal, social reality) that is a compromise.

    I worry that the idea of ‘balance’ will lead to a status quo – I think we’re always going to have to struggle against the state and presently we’re enmeshed in a world wide model of government that has the smell of fascism leaking out from under the lid placed upon its top.

    I think that we need considerably enhanced protection to ensure that we individuals stand a chance against the crushing forces continuously undermining our freedom.

  7. Ed says:

    I find it intriguing that pre WWII the USA allowed publication of suppressed material relating to the British King; now that balance has been reversed. As far as New Zealand is concerned we saw a leak of a diplomatic assessment of an NZ politician and the world did not end – it was seen a indicating that diplomacy involved a level of gossip and human inaccuracy that had perhaps not been previously understood – and also human fallibility, both by those writing the material and those leaking it.

    I am sure greater care will be taken of tracking who downloads material, and ultimately it will not stop material being published that some would prefer not to be known. Our foreign affairs people will have top work differently, and perhaps be more circumspect at times, but I see no need for special legislation to be rushed in to try and stop leaks.

    For most of us, private information does not have international significance, but it would be reasonable to ensure that we are able to prosecute people responsible for publication in or from New Zealand of material that if it related to a New Zealand citizen would be regarded as a breach of privacy – and seek international agreement on similar legislation elsewhere, on a minimum definition of such privacy.

    From our government, greater preparedness to be open and transparent would reduce the impact of disclosures anyway.

  8. jacqui says:

    freedom of speech should always win over privacy whenever there is an issue that is in public interest.

  9. KJT says:

    Governments have no right t keep secrets from their employers. Us.

    The only secrecy allowed Government should be in matters of personal privacy.

  10. Sheryl says:

    Go Assange!
    In my opinion if a country has nothing to hide they shouldn’t be worried.
    The U.S digusts me, with it’s money buys anything ways.

  11. Colonial Viper says:

    I noticed Trevor banned Ed here

    Why is he still posting?

  12. Tracey says:

    Isnt the leaking and stealing of state secrets the whole purpose of secret services the world over, in dictatorships, democracies, etc etc?

    I consider whistle-blowers important. It’s how we keep our politicians on their toes, amongst others.

    America considers itself at war in Iraq, Afganistan and against “terrorism” (selected as that last one may be)- so these leaks are part of the war I guess.

    I’m sure the leaker knows the risk they took and consequences of being caught up with, of interest willbe how much a cash strapped US govt will spend on tracking them down, and how much they will admit to spending

  13. Tracey says:

    Sheryl, in fairness to the USA we know what we know,a nd think what we think because we have access to their machinations.

    We cannot say the same of Russia, CHina, Pakistan, Zimbabwe etc

    By all means loathe the USA but remember you loathe them because you know so much about how they think and operate.

  14. Tracey says:

    I have NO proof but my gut tells me Russia bought the World Cup of soccer. Putin wasnt there because he already knew the cheque had cleared.

    Watch the casinos pop up near all the football stadium for the extravaganza.

    It’s an appalling place to get to, vias are very expensive, immigration/customs frankly scary, their 4-5 star hotels ordinary and their big cities are horrendously expensive.

    Sepp Blater learnt from the Master, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

    We only got proof of the later and the machinations of the IOC when the berlin wall came down because the Stazi had kept such good records, prior to that it was secret.

  15. Ed* says:

    Colonial Viper – there must be two posters with the same name – the post you references was not written by me. I have therefore changed my name for this post

  16. Colonial Viper says:

    Ed, you’re a star :)

    I should’ve guessed coz you were entirely too rational and measured in your approach, thanks.

  17. Al1ens says:

    “I should’ve guessed coz you were entirely too rational and measured in your approach, thanks”

    Tee hee 😀

  18. Anne says:

    Smelt a rat immediately because Ed* was entirely too rational and measured to be the other Ed.

    One up on you CV – this once 😀

    Spud come back please. The Daves’ of this world are not worth a cent. We all know that.

  19. Colonial Viper says:

    Spud! I’d gladly shower you with all the beersupport you want 😀

  20. Spud says:

    Thanks Viper, appreciate it man, 😀

  21. Clare Curran says:

    Spud of course we want you to continue commenting. Don’t ever think we don’t. And we are keeping an eye on any personal abuse or attacks on commenters as well as those who post on Red Alert. If you feel under attack then pelase draw it to our attention. We won’t always agree, but we will pay attention.

    We can’t ban someone because they’ve upset you. If they’ve abused you, told lies or are engaging in trolling behaviour then they can and are likely to face a ban.

    You are a valued commenter. Personally I’d prefer you dropped the emoticons but I certainly won’t hold that against you! And I like to engage in the banter.

    Does this help?

  22. Spud says:

    It’s nice to hear Clare (Xmas flower thing), I considered it to be a personal attack and offthread, no swearing is needed for it to be offensive. He was harrassing me. It does help that you say you will listen and that I’m valued, Merry Christmas Clare.

  23. SPC says:

    Civil liberty is what is supposed to be being defended. But apparently the peoples right to free speech to hold those in authority accountable – ensure transparent government is attacked as a security threat.

    Apparently they need to know what the people are communicating privately on grounds of security, but want to keep us from what they are communicating privately on grounds of security. It makes one wonder what this all purpose word security means, because it sure does not mean protecting our civil liberties.

    It remainds me of when the leader of the free world would support the “non communist dictator” as part of defending our democratic “security” during the Cold War, but now the dictator being protected on the grounds of security is not some foreign dictator but our own “democratic” governments.

    The USA is moving towards NET ID to identify all commentators who post on the net whenever thwey exercise their free speeech. Their capacity to then target and intimidate individuals over this is both unlimited and anonymous (cyber attacks on WikiLeaks are only the sign of what goes on for some individuals under their targeting – and they are far more advanced at it than the Chinese who are only fast followers).

  24. Spud says:

    It’s pitiful, and very scary that they are going after the poor dude :-(

  25. Callum says:

    I admire his courage, but isn’t the argument something akin to: “free speech but not when you are causing harm to others”? Like how you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, it’s bound to cause harm.

    If his actions are putting the lives of soldiers at risk, an intelligent prosecutor could probably stump up a charge relating to that, and not something as transparent as a suspiciously coincidental rape allegation.

    It’s tricky.

  26. The US Supreme Court’s ruling on any publisher’s first amendment rights is that any information published that is in the public interest is constitutionally protected speech, no matter how it is obtained…

    It is one the Supreme Court’s best decision for ages and why we here need an entrenched Bill of Rights which allows us to challenge Parliamentary Acts to an independent Judiciary… The Yanks have that but we don’t and according to DTB we have democracy and they don’t…

  27. Nevyn says:

    I’m still a little unclear as to what’s actually happened with wikileaks to my great discredit. I’ve heard some talk which has had me considering how a foil hat would look on a person.

    In terms of freedom of information – while I have a passion that information should be free, I still consider there to be a case made for what information that applies to.

    Should a politician’s opinion on whoever be up for public scrutiny for example?

    This kind of reminds me of the whole Michael Jackson thing. He died. Loads of people claimed he was a wonderful man. The question is, was he? How did they know?

    If, in the opinion of whatever politician, who presumably has had interactions with whoever, they look unfavourably on that person, then they are doing their job in that they’re being diplomatic about it. Personally, I don’t like a lot of the people within my own industry but I’ll still sit and chat with them at a social event and work with them to get a job done. That’s just me doing my job.

    No one needs to know that I might dislike working or socializing with someone. All that matters is that the job still gets done. Why then, are politicians held in a different regard on this front?

  28. John W says:

    Wiki Leaks a lot of rotten foul smelling stuff so that we know what they are up to.

    No apologies from the authors.

    Plainly our rights as citizens are being trampled on by ever more constraints of laws being tweaked to suit politicians and their sponsors.

    We are told that if we have nothing to hide then what are we scared of.

    Surely the public have a greater right to know what the people we vote for and employ do “on our behalf”. More often than not their questionable actions are not in our interests.

    Society should be scared when moves to close down free speech are made in any form. The media are owned and sources controlled by a small group with multinational interests.

    Clearly the US/world oligarchy have perpetrated corruption, wars and horrendous crimes for profit of a tiny group and even worse lied and mislead decent people into paying for these personally financially advantageous ventures with public taxes, dead family members and horrific destruction of innocent communities with aftermath into future generations.

    Any moves to comment on or restrict their blatant murderous adventuring is treated with hostility and repression.

    911 lies, wars and patriot act is a sorry and sickening example of all the worst aspects of human kind and the tip of an iceberg floating on excess money within the ranks of US “citizens” .

    It is generally not the common person we have to fear but ignorance lies and those in a position of unbridled power.

    Increasing moves to close down free speech and information on the Web is happening.

    Same old group clamoring for controls as the myths they proliferate are undone.

    Public health is maintained by honest open questioning.