The past week has seen plenty of ink spilled — virtual and otherwise — about WikiLeaks and its mercurial front-man, Julian Assange, and the pressure they have come under from the U.S. government and companies such as Amazon and PayPal, both of which have blocked WikiLeaks from using their services. Why should we care about any of this? Because more than anything else, WikiLeaks is a publisher — a new kind of publisher, but a publisher nonetheless — and that makes this a freedom of the press issue. Like it or not, WikiLeaks is fundamentally a journalistic entity, and as such it deserves our protection.
Not everyone agrees with this point of view, of course. Some argue that there is nothing journalistic about the organization whatsoever, and that it is simply a lawless group of misfits spreading information around that it doesn’t have the right to distribute, without caring for the effects of its actions. That may be true — but it’s also true that the same description fits more than one allegedly journalistic entity in the traditional media sphere, and they are all protected by the First Amendment and its principles regarding freedom of the press. So why is WikiLeaks not worthy of the same protection?
Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, is the one who put pressure on Amazon to remove support for WikiLeaks (although the company claims it removed the organization’s site from its servers because Wikileaks did not own the rights to the content, not because of political pressure). Senator Lieberman has proposed legislation called the SHIELD law — short for Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination — which would make it a crime to publish information that might harm U.S. agents or informants, or would otherwise be contrary to the national interest.
This might as well be called the WikiLeaks law, since it is clearly targeted at the organization — which did not actually leak the documents (something that is already a crime under the Espionage Act) but is clearly publishing them. But the heavy hand of this law would not just fall on WikiLeaks; it would also potentially cover anyone who has published the cables, such as the New York Times. Just as sources used to leak secret documents to newspapers, which often published them regardless of whether the government disapproved, now those sources can go to WikiLeaks and accomplish the same thing.
So what makes WikiLeaks different from the New York Times? There are the obvious things, of course — the latter publishes a print newspaper, is a member of a variety of self-regulatory bodies involving the media, and is a venerable institution with a long history of journalistic integrity. WikiLeaks, meanwhile, is a shadowy organization with an uncertain history, opaque motivations and publishes only online. That said, why are we so eager to protect one and not the other? WikiLeaks’ stated intention is to bring transparency to the political process and expose wrongdoing. Isn’t that the same thing the Times does? And yet one is being hounded by government agents, forced to remove its documents from Amazon’s servers and blocked from using PayPal, while the other is free to publish whatever it wants. What if the Times were to store some of its content on Amazon’s EC2 servers or use PayPal for transactions — would it be subject to the same treatment? And if not, why is WikiLeaks?
Some would argue that we don’t need entities like WikiLeaks, because traditional publishers like the New York Times are good enough. And it’s true that leakers took their information to newspapers before WikiLeaks came along — but it’s also true that many of them refused to publish it. And in some cases, information that should not have been published actually took the spotlight away from the truth, as in the case of the Times’ reporting leading up to the Iraq War. An independent source of documents like WikiLeaks (which journalism professor Jay Rosen has called the world’s “first stateless news organization”) would have been a very valuable thing to have during that time.
The fact is that freedom of the press, like freedom of speech in general, is a crucial part of the fabric of a free society. Every action that impinges on those freedoms is a loss for society, and a step down a slippery slope — and that applies to everything that falls under the term “press,” regardless of whether we agree with its methods or its leaders. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, online speech is only as strong as the weakest intermediary. Any action that the government or its representatives take against a publisher like WikiLeaks should have to meet a very high bar indeed — and as Dan Gillmor argues, everyone working at the New York Times or any other media outlet should feel a shiver when they see Joe Lieberman attacking WikiLeaks, because it could just as easily be them in the spotlight instead of Julian Assange.