Archive for December 5th, 2010
A few weeks ago I saw Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange debating Times pundit David Aaronovitch on the ethics of transparency and disclosure, at City University in London. The big question of the night was whether Wikileaks should have done more to protect the identities of the Afghan informants featured in the now-famous US military Afghan War Logs – and to what extent Wikileaks would be culpable if anyone identified in the logs was killed by the Taleban.
David Aaronovitch came across as thoughtful, measured, and courteous – praising many of Assange’s achievements but challenging him to acknowledge greater moral complexity, and take more responsibility for the possible unintended consequences of his work. Assange, by contrast, seemed condescending, and at times bad-tempered, giving a series of abstract and elliptical answers that were often much stronger on rhetoric than detail.
Although a number of Aaronovitch’s arguments seemed to me to be deeply flawed, they were masterfully made, and Assange did a poor job of responding to them. The audience appeared unimpressed.
In my view, Julian Assange has done himself no favours by appearing to suggest that the greater-good of a more transparent world might justify (or morally counterbalance) some degree of “collateral damage” to innocent people inadvertently put at risk by being identified on Wikileaks.
It seems to me that there are some serious ethical issues at stake in the publication of details which could lead to increased risks for innocent people, and that there are valid questions to be asked about the Wikileaks “harm minimization policy”.
And yet I don’t believe that any of the above criticisms quite does the job that the most vehement critics of Wikileaks seem to want them to. Julian Assange may be arrogant, condescending and a poor debating match for David Aaronovitch – he may even be guilty of the (as yet unproven) charges laid against him by the Swedish authorities. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s wrong about the realities of UK and US foreign policy, or about the need for a radical shift towards greater public transparency worldwide.
Likewise, if it did transpire (and I’m not aware of any direct evidence to date) that an innocent person had been injured or killed at the hands of someone who had identified them via a document published on Wikileaks, this would, in my view, be a serious moral indictment. But it would not necessarily mean that Wikileaks were at fault in seeking to publish the document in some form – only that they were negligent in failing to redact all identifiable personal details.
While the issue of “harm minimization” cannot simply be brushed aside, it is clearly not the only ethical issue at stake in the debate about Wikileaks. One of the most serious charges made against the UK and US governments in the light of the Afghan War Logs and the more recent “cablegate” revelations is that the political elites who determine policy – both the politicians and the bureaucrats who advise them – have systematically deceived their electorates about the realities of the war in Afghanistan. As John Naughton puts it:
The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this. Afghanistan is, in that sense, the same kind of quagmire as Vietnam was. The only differences are that the war is now being fought by non-conscripted troops and we are not carpet-bombing civilians, but otherwise little has changed…
These realities are, of course, plain to see, because even the mainstream media, despite its need always to pay tribute to “our brave troops”, has had to report some of it. But what nobody has known until now — outside of the magic circles of the Beltway, Whitehall and NATO HQ — is that our rulers privately concede the hopelessness of the venture. The implicit cynicism and hypocrisy of this is breathtaking — and it goes a long way towards explaining the irrational fury of our political elites at having it exposed in so brutal and unmediated a fashion.
If this analysis is fair, then it seems to me that Naughton may also be broadly correct that the latest row “represents the first really serious confrontation between the established order and the culture of the Net”.
I’ve been aware of Wikileaks since the early days of their existence. But I began following them closely last year, after the Trafigura super-injunction scandal, which centred on an internal company document, the “Minton Report”, published by Wikileaks in September 2009. Being based far outside of UK legal jurisdiction, relatively anonymous and with an opaque legal structure, Wikileaks were able to publish the information freely, at a time when the UK media had been comprehensively gagged. The fact that the “banned” information was so easily available from Wikileaks to anyone in the UK via a simple Google search helped to render Trafigura’s super-injunction redundant. The injunction was ultimately dropped, allowing the mainstream press to report freely on the case.
The Trafigura incident highlighted starkly just how constrained the UK media is. But it also gave insights into how a site like Wikileaks could be used to weaken and circumvent those constraints. A UK court had issued an injunction threatening jail-time for contempt-of-court to anyone who so much as referred to the “Minton Report”. Wikileaks had blithely ignored it. It was impossible not to wonder what they would turn up next – or how far they would be allowed to go before a concerted attempt was made to shut them down.
The very existence of Wikileaks also seemed to point towards a larger question – how durable is the scale of freedom that has developed on the internet in recent years? Will the net really lead to a permanent “redistribution of data” – the mass availability of information previously so jealously guarded by the media and political elites? Or will the current era come to be seen as a short-lived blip – an involuntarily loosening of controls that lasted only as long as it took for the elites to figure out the dynamics of the new technology, devise new systems for bringing it under control, and develop the political means to apply those systems worldwide?
It seems possible that we will get some clues about these questions over the next year. Will Julian Assange receive a credible and fair trial in Sweden if, as seems likely, he is arrested and extradited in the next few weeks on rape charges? Will he ultimately be handed over to the US authorities and prosecuted for some yet-to-be-defined espionage offence – and if so will he get a fair trial there? Will the US government seek to make an example of the suspected whistleblower Bradley Manning by pressing for the death penalty, as senior Republican politicians appear to be demanding? Will the political fallout generated by the Wikileaks revelations lead US legislators to support new laws watering down constitutional free speech protections? Will US allies around the world be persuaded to modify their own laws to make it more difficult for websites like Wikileaks to operate outside the reach of US jurisdiction? Will the bulk of the established mainsteam media support such efforts at increased censorship, or seek to rally public opinion against them?
At this stage I still find the signs very difficult to read. Many technical people I’ve spoken to seem convinced that there is simply no practical way, in technological terms, of controlling internet traffic without also imposing Chinese-style levels of domestic political surveillance and repression. National governments may succeed in shutting down sites like Wikileaks temporarily, the argument goes – but while the technology for sharing large amounts of data and putting it online is so ubiquitous and easy to master, it’s inevitable that censored information will simply reappear elsewhere on the net before too long.
On the other hand, the forces ranged against Wikileaks – and the idea that it represents – now seem formidable. Where previously the United States – and to a lesser extent the member countries of the European Union – have taken a broadly liberal stance on internet censorship, the position appears to be shifting. Commenting on developments in a statement earlier this week, the press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres noted that:
French digital economy minister Eric Besson today said the French government was looking at ways to ban hosting of the site. WikiLeaks was also recently dropped by its domain name provider EveryDNS. Meanwhile, several countries well known for for their disregard of freedom of expression and information, including Thailand and China, have blocked access to cablegate.wikileaks.org.
This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.
While the five permanent members of the UN Security Council may not be able to agree unanimously on much, the political elites in Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China suddenly seem much closer to a consensus on the need to control the information that their subjects can access online. And while western countries have opposed moves within the UN to create an international convention criminalising the “defamation of religion”, it’s harder to predict which way they would jump if a UN member state proposed a treaty to impose global controls on the internet.
Striking, too, has been the character of response from many mainstream US establishment figures to the exposure of their country’s embarrassing secrets. Newt Gingrich (former Speaker of the House of Representatives) has called for Julian Assange to be treated as an “enemy combatant” – placing him in the same category as the terror suspects denied basic legal rights and detained and tortured at Guantanamo Bay. Former Republican Vice Presidential candidate and likely Presidential contender Sarah Palin has called for him to be “hunted like Osama bin Laden”. The Washington Times, meanwhile, has published what could be described as a “fatwa” by Jeffrey T Kuhner, the President of the “Edmund Burke Institute”, urging the extrajudicial killing of Julian Assange on English soil.
Already it seems that there is pressure within the United States to extend the legal category of “non-person”, previously reserved for those suspected of direct involvement in terrorist atrocities, to cover those who publish information that the government alleges puts national security at risk.
While it seems doubtful that the current US administration would go to such extremes, given the Republican Party’s current rhetoric, their past record on torture and due process, and the lack of any prosecutions to deter such abuses in future, it’s difficult to predict how far they will go if they succeed in winning back the Presidency at the next election.
The position of the established media, too, seems uncertain. While the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times have been instrumental in disseminating edited highlights of the recent Wikileaks disclosures, the conservative media have been active in airing the most authoritarian demands of the American hard-right, while others have been keen to offer their advice in how the “threat” might be contained.
“If America feels threatened by WikiLeaks”, writes the Economist, “then it should lean on its allies—Sweden, Iceland and Belgium—to strip the organisation of the protections it so carefully gathers as it shifts its information around the world. Mr Assange has suggested that he might be hounded all the way to Russia or Cuba. If he has to take all of his servers with him, it will be harder for him to act so boldly.”