A new Web site has popped up that has the potential to represent the best of the Internet — from the point of view of concerned citizens — and the worst of the Internet — from the point of view of almost all governments.
Wikileaks’ creators say they are developing an “uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document-leaking and analysis.” They have nicely provided a new focus for a core Internet discussion: the balance among anonymity, the press and the government.
Judging by the site, the folks that put it together see Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leaking of the Pentagon Papers as the poster child for why a site like this is needed (see their FAQ). Ellsberg, The New York Times and Washington Post ran into a legal buzz saw when the U.S. government tried to block publication of the papers. The newspapers prevailed, but only after a landmark Supreme Court decision blocking any prepublication injunction.
The logic of why to not block publication may have been expressed best by Judge Murray Gurfein when he withdrew his initial injunction: “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know. These are troubled times. There is no greater safety valve for discontent and cynicism about the affairs of government than freedom of expression in any form“ (see this National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book for a very good history of the Pentagon Papers case and an archive).
Wikileaks has not gone live yet (an example of a leaked document can be found on the Web site), but its creators have received 1.2 million documents already and expect it to be up in the next couple of months. The site will use a Wikipedia-like process of public comment and editing to help weed out false or misleading material. Its creators also hope to avoid legal attacks, at least in the West, by initially focusing on “non-western, authoritarian regimes.” It is ready to distribute its software for others to run if Wikileaks gets shut down.
A key feature of the Wikileaks approach is anonymity for the persons leaking documents. Internet anonymity bothers a lot of people — particularly people in law enforcement. But in the United States at least, law enforcement is in a bit of a bind: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution guarantees anonymity, at least in the area of political discourse. In other parts of the world, a breakdown of Wikileaks’ anonymity mechanisms could easily lead to people being killed — so it had better work very reliably.
The fundamental conflict — between governments’ inherent assumption of a need to know who might be a threat to their power or to society, the right of a free press to report on the excesses or lies of governments, and the need for individuals opposing governments to do so without risking persecution — is being played out now on the Internet. In retrospect, it was inevitable that this would happen (it might not have been if the Internet had been just another centrally managed telephone service). It will be enlightening to see the governmental reaction to this new mode of exposing governmental wrongdoing.
Disclaimer: Wrongdoing in government has a longer history than even Harvard, but I have not seen a recent Harvard comment on the topic, so the above prediction of enlightenment is my own.
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