Welcome to the darker side of the Internet. Yes, there are shades of dark, and this is but another of the darkest of shades. Wave the flag of freedom of speech and of the press all you want, but is a site like WikiLeaks really such a great thing?
Apart from stroking his own ego, which I gather is larger than life, and (in my opinion) giving the world the finger whilst hiding behind the shield of “you have a right to know,” I’m not so sure WikiLeaks isn’t doing a lot more harm than good — on a number of fronts.
“I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off,” Julian Assange wrote to a WikiLeaks staffer who recently resigned in protest, according to Wired.com.
What can I say; it just isn’t that easy a thing to do. Assange was arrested in the United Kingdom over an outstanding sex-crimes warrant in Sweden. He is currently out on bail and refusing to return to Sweden for questioning, and his staff are indeed starting to “piss off.”
A number resigned in the wake of the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents which it is said were to have been more thoroughly redacted before being released (does that really make a difference ultimately?).
In fact, a group of former employees has broken off and is launching its own site: “OpenLeaks.” While the OpenLeaks group claims its site will be run democratically (apparently WikiLeaks was not) and will support whistleblowers and the dissemination of information to the public (sound familiar?), that it claims to be neutral and not guided by any political agenda is, well, a bit naive.
Also, it intends to collect the information, and let others fall on the sword of actual disclosure to the public. If nothing else, it appears to be learning from Assange’s mistakes.
Back to WikiLeaks though. In the wake of all the controversy and discussion, I had to ask myself: Is this information I really need, want, or ought to have access to? Or is it sheer titillation and the primal desire for a sense of superiority over others that drives one’s desire to find out what sort of private discussions take place behind the closed doors (if one can say such a thing about online transmissions) of some of our most powerful members of government.
In discussion over lunch with a friend from Chile, he suggested that, in fact, he did get some satisfaction from hearing his own thoughts at the time regarding a past president’s actions were echoed by senior American officials.
What is said publicly is clearly not what might have been said privately. But is that really a surprise to any of us? And would it really have done any good for the U.S. official to have said what he really thought at the time? Or am I just incredibly cynical in refusing to believe that our officials put on the cloak of transparency for our benefit as soon as they take public office. Honestly. Can you imagine what global politics and diplomacy, let alone peace might look like? Enter: WikiLeaks.
So how does one deal with a site like WikiLeaks? Apart from the allegations of copyright infringement, there appears to be a general reluctance to formally step up and charge Assange criminally or to flex the muscle of (any) law and shut the site down permanently.
Not that I’m unaware of many reasons (legal and non-legal) why it isn’t that easy to do. Case in point: MasterCard, among others, refused to post payments in support of WikiLeaks, and the result for MasterCard was a cyber attack on its mastercard.com site. Indeed, Swiss business PostFinance closed Assange’s bank account and itself was the subject of attacks to its web site.
I can certainly understand that legal reasons aside, governments would be reluctant to open themselves up not only to attack in the court of public opinion, but to cyber attacks as well. That said, if WikiLeaks really does pose a threat to national security, and not just diplomatic relations, surely there are legal, and not covert back-door-type, remedies that can be exercised in the name of public interest that won’t necessarily end in a cyberwar.
Indeed, a U.S. grand jury is reportedly meeting (not quite so secretly if we are reading about it online) to discuss possible criminal charges against Assange. Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, has apparently authorized criminal investigations into WikiLeaks, and under American law, the government could bring charges against Assange under not only the Espionage Act of 1917 — for disseminating classified information — but also under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — for inciting or aiding obtaining documents illegally.
I wonder if Assange ever actually stopped to consider the implications of his little project, before he issued the edict to post the first damning document.
On the plus side, we’ll probably see a surge in demand for heightened online security protocols (whether or not they are ever implemented). People, especially public officials and diplomats whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, will think twice before hitting the “send” button. And you never know, we might even see a positive improvement in government transparency and global diplomatic relations.
Right, and there really is a Santa Claus.
Sarah Dale-Harris is corporate counsel at Accenture Inc. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 416-641-3151. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.