08 December 2010

WikiLeaks: the case for and against

Looks like they got him. Julian Assange now sits in a London jail on rape charges, awaiting possible extradition to Sweden. But I won’t be drawn into this sideshow. I’m more concerned about the ethical issues behind the actions of WikiLeaks. Assange may be the cognitive, directive and even motive force behind it, but his current absence from WikiLeaks won’t lessen the impact the organisation has made on the international landscape. The fallout of ‘Cablegate’ will continue to occupy people’s thoughts and fuel fiery arguments attacking and defending WikiLeaks (and thus Assange).

Here are a few parties weighing in on the ethics of WikiLeaks’s actions – even the ethics of their very purpose for being – in the context of contemporary information technology and its use (and abuse) by those in power. As with any complex issue, arguments for and against are equally compelling. Both sides make valid points that deserve the careful consideration of anyone who aspires to cool, rational judgment. My own initially strong pro-WikiLeaks/Assange position has since been modified to include a little circumspection after reading persuasive criticisms of their puritanism.

  • Internet thinker Clay Shirky is “conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors.” That is, actors like US diplomats whose work has been made a lot harder now that the leaked cables have eroded the trust and discretion necessary for successful diplomacy.

  • The Economist (Dec 4th – 10th 2010) opines: “One of the jobs of journalism is to make a grubby nuisance of itself by ferreting out the establishment’s half-truths and embarrassments. And one of the jobs of the courts is to police the press by protecting whistle-blowers while also punishing libel and treachery.” However, with respect to the flood of information made available by WikiLeaks, “any gains will come at a high cost. […] The secrecy that WikiLeaks despises is vital to all organisations, including government – and especially in the realm of international relations. Those who pass information to American diplomats, out of self-interest, conviction or goodwill, will be less open now (‘Read cables and red faces’).” And some could face reprisals once their identities are revealed.

  • Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) states that “whistleblowing is not illegal, nor is publishing leaked documents from whistleblowers. Whistleblowing is a legitimate way for citizens to reveal corruption and illegal activity. Like journalism, it is a tool for upholding democracy and speaking truth to power.”

On the whole, the argument still weighs in favour of freedom of speech and the right for citizens to have greater transparency and accountability from their governments. Despite the fact that WikiLeaks’s “messianic mission attracts cult-like support, from idealists to America-bashers, including conspiracy nuts and those for whom using cryptography to outwit authority is an end in itself (The Economist, ‘Unpluggable’)”, Assange’s media guerillas have managed to humble an often arrogant world power. And this act sends a clear message to all governments with skeletons in their closets: if WikiLeaks can name and shame the world’s only superpower, it can certainly do the same to a lesser power. Truth will out, for the great and the small.


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