116 Comments

Summary:

We may not like its methods or its leader, but WikiLeaks is a publisher — a new kind of publisher, but a publisher nonetheless — and as such it deserves to be protected from government interference, just like any other member of the traditional or mainstream media.

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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.

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  1. The NYT publishes LIES as fact that got us into the illegal wars we are engaged in. 100 K dead civilians, torture and massive coverups…

    Wikileaks publishes fact as fact and lets YOU decide.

    It should be noted that wikileaks has promised to publish five gigabites of data proving “an ecology of corruption” in a major bank. Now Interpol is looking for Assange and paypal and amazon have cut them off. They’ve been doing this for YEARS. Why now?

    If we were talking about financial crimes first – and not state crimes which for some reason confuse people – we would not be debating this AT ALL.

    Money is what people hold sacred it seems.

    1. Panagiotis Atmatzidis Liz McLellan Monday, December 6, 2010

      I don’t think that the pre-view has something to do with this. The revelations were so important that the damage is huge. I think that the USA government is afraid of the rest of the documents.

      The counter-measures are plain idiotic. I don’t know if they have made ‘a task force’ of sorts with ‘think tanks’, etc. If they did its completely out of line.

  2. The real question is why aren’t the leading news agencies and media organizations out there voicing their support for Wikileaks? Do they not understand the slippery road that Lieberman’s proposals and all of the other legislators and gov’t officials calling for Wikileaks blood, is creating for their very profession? Haven’t they directly benefited from a significant increase in revenue and interest to their publications from all the news around the Wikileaks releases.

    It would be nice to see some of these organizations show some “balls” when it really mattered. They’re all very tough when it comes to copyright protection and targeting their helpless customers, but not so big when something important like our democracy is at stake. Perhaps we should change their name from the Third Estate to the Weak Estate ;)

    1. I completely agree — it would be nice to see some other members of the press, particularly those that have benefited from what WikiLeaks is doing, stand up and defend the organization, or at least question some of what is happening in a more public way.

      1. It is worth noting that Amazon, PayPal, The New York Times Corporation and other entities involved in hosting and publishing information that may be embarrassing for the US or other governments ALL have stakes in proposed legislation regarding media consolidation, taxation of online purchases, so called net neutrality laws and other regulatory acts that may hamper their business interests. We know from anecdotal reports that the government and its representatives are not above threatening these private entities with legislation if they don’t act as requested. Conversely, lobbyists work both ways. So you can understand why some media organizations which vaunt themselves as models of serious journalism are loathe to take public positions that conflict with longterm corporate strategy.

    2. my voice my choice direwolff Monday, December 6, 2010

      Well said direwolf. This is a first amendment issue which affects not one side of the aisle or the other but the entire chamber. Let’s not confuse “the press” with journalism. This is as big or bigger than the Pentagon Papers. Once we reach the tipping point the “traitors” will become heroes.

  3. I make no defense of Joe Lieberman, as I think the law he proposes is completely unnecessary.

    As for Amazon, you clearly do not understand the laws governing freedom of the press and speech. Private entities are under no obligation to assist you. As a private company, Amazon can do whatever they wish. In all likelihood, Amazon had no advance knowledge that WikiLeaks was even moving files to their hosting service. Signing up for a hosting account is generally an automated process you perform from a web-form. I would speculate that Amazon began the internal review as to whether they would toss WikiLeaks off their servers the moment it came to their attention that they were even on their servers, and Joe Lieberman’s grandstanding likely had little influence on their decision at all. For his part, Julian Assange only moved files to Amazon in order to do some grandstanding of his own. He stated in an interview published just today in the Guardian, that he only set up the Amazon account in the hopes of being kicked off. So the whole Amazon thing was nothing more than a PR stunt on his part, knowing people like you would eat it right out of his hand.

    All those running to Assange’s defense miss the point of diplomacy. Diplomacy is the alternative to military power. The majority of the State Department’s time is spent trying to solve problems without the use of force. Publishing private correspondence between diplomats sends a chill through diplomatic channels, making them much less likely to speak with candor about complex issues in private, because their presumption of confidentiality has been shattered.

    So the ultimate result from WikiLeaks efforts means a lockdown of diplomatic channels, less dialog, and a greater dependence on force rather than diplomacy to solve world problems.

    1. Thanks for your response Chris. I think it’s a lot more reasonable than many i’ve read who hold similar opinions.

      However, I’d take issue with the comments about diplomacy. Essentially, while these leaks may be somewhat embarrassing to the US, what has been leaked so far (and that’s all any of us can really comment on) is of little consequence and really is not well characterised as top secret. These documents were leaked by someone with little in the way of unusual credentials and they’re available to two million people.

      If the contention is that the leak of these documents endangers, embarrasses or otherwise limits potential future interactions with the sources and intermediaries discussed in the documents, I think personally that this argument is not a very strong one, as with the huge number of people with access, I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest any interested foreign party who really wanted to get their hands on them already would have been able to do so.

      Putin did well in response to all this when he rather glibly laughed and said something to the effect of “you should see what we say about you behind your back”. Clinton is doing a decent job of looking as though she’s kept some composure as well.

      This doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with everything Wikileaks is doing, but I think the response to its behaviour (As an organisation) and Julian’s (individually in this and other matters) has been very knee jerk and quite disproportionate.

      And I think this is what the majority of persons who generally share my views really take issue. The response of government and private bodies globally has been abhorrent.

      I’m an Australian citizen and our Federal Attorney General, Robert McClelland and our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard have been vocal in their criticism of Assange personally and have impugned that he has violated some of our domestic laws. The cynic in me says this in itself is a kind of ironic proof that diplomacy and posturing games will continue being played because there’s no law he’s violated domestically and for them to speak before being briefed in this regard seems impertinent and would suggest that the focus of their efforts is more to pander to the whims of other parties than it is to seek justice or fairness for a citizen.

    2. Finally, somebody who gets it! Thank you CG! Julian Assange is not American. He’s not even wanted in his own country of Australia and is currently wanted by INTERPOL. His postings involved illegal transactions which the NY Times would have retracted were they posted on their website. Why is it so easy for people to jump on the 1st Amendment bandwagon without understanding the political implications that affect not only diplomacy but troops on the ground?

      1. The fact that Assange is not welcome in Australia and wanted by Interpol is irrelevant to this discussion.

    3. While you’re probably right that Lieberman had limited influence on Amazon and Paypal’s decisions to kick WikiLeaks off their servers/services, it seems to be more of an effect of the general political climate – a climate that Lieberman partakes in. There is a high willingness to call WikiLeaks “mean” things and when politicians do that, people notice it and may often react similarly. In that climate, it’s quite bad to be the target. This is also unique to the US. WikiLeaks does not seem to have a problem with their hosts in Sweden or Switzerland. When a media organization struggles in one country and does not in another, what do you call that problem?

      I think it’s also a little naive to think WikiLeaks will lead to more fighting. Countries don’t simply start using force for no reason, particularly not one like WikiLeaks. Sure, it could lead towards less effective diplomacy, but that’s an effect that may not be lasting since governments will respond to the threat – just like the US responded to 9/11. When change is needed, it happens. States have always adjusted to new realities.

      I think the true effect of WikiLeaks will be efforts like the ones we see to reduce the freedom to publish these stories. There already is some voluntary censorship in the American media and it may increase. WikiLeaks could also, however, make it far more difficult to start a war or to fight a war. Had WikiLeaks been around when the Iraq war plan was being celebrated by the US media, there’s a good chance the war simply could not have happened. That makes WikiLeaks a good thing.

    4. Thanks for the comment, Chris — I realize that Amazon is a private corporation and therefore has no specific duty or responsibilities involving freedom of speech or freedom of the press. But at the same time, it can choose to support those principles if it wants to, just as Google has done in the past with information hosted on its servers.

      1. Couldn’t agree more, I think it is very telling that Amazon chose to cave so quickly.

    5. I’m mixed on this topic, but mostly in favor of publishing the leaks and analyzing them. When certain people in government are guilty of crimes or bad behavior, sure diplomacy can be affected, but if the individual is removed from their position, that can have the cleansing effect needed for relations to improve.

    6. Panagiotis Atmatzidis Chris Grayson Monday, December 6, 2010

      You miss the point. Most people except from ‘People Magazine’ and especially most politicians don’t give a sh*t about the efforts the USA government did to help a treaty get in line.

      What is ‘good to know’ are the lies exposed on these documents. And as such, it’s a DUTY of the media to expose them. No matter what.

      Truth hurts but ultimately pays back. If there’s nothing to hide, then why act paranoid?

  4. Sure, they should be treated like a media outlet. Agree. But with that respect and treatment comes a responsibility. There have been plenty of times where media outlets such as the New York Times have refused to publish certain things.

    Publishing hundreds of thousands of classified documents is not journalism. It’s treason against humanity. And that punk soldier that gave them to him should be shot on the basis of treason against his country. I’ll gladly volunteer to do it. I wish I were still in the Army, and fortunate enough to be stationed with him.

    This isn’t the same as “exposing” a story. That’s something real journalists do.

    I consider myself fairly liberal. But liberalism doesn’t mean “hey, let’s be complete asshats and publish classified documents online.” In this case, sans any real journalistic purpose, is wholly irresponsible and unjustified.

    Quite frankly, given the absence of any real journalistic purpose, it borders on electronic terrorism.

    1. You consider yourself “fairly liberal,” and yet you would gladly shoot someone in your own unit if they released classified documents? That’s an interesting juxtaposition of views. In any case, the Secretary of Defence himself has said the fuss about WikiLeaks is overdone and everyone knows the US diplomatic corps leaks like a sieve already: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/12/02/gates_wikileaks_poohpooh/

    2. Panagiotis Atmatzidis Scott Friday, December 10, 2010

      Given the current circumstances of “media censorship” that most media are willing to endorse and play “nice” with whoever stays control, I think that wikileaks and similar ‘services’ are more than just a favor to people: These services are a need.

      Tell how exactly would you know that the USA embassy pressed the Germans not to sue CIA officials via interpol for the El-Khasim case.

      Oh wait, this… Didn’t happen to you, so it’s like it didn’t happen, right?

      1. how would i have known about that CIA/Germany/El-Khasim case? well try reading the newspaper. This story was all over the German and some other european newspapers years ago (when this was a story). btw also the term for the German chancellor Merkel as teflon chancellor in some of the cables did not come as a surprise in Germany because that was a term introduced in the German media and then used by one of the US embassy guys in a cable. so no news again.

        maybe if we all read the news and care about what is going on around us rather than limiting our news intake on sites that have wiki in their name or on pseudo news sites like fox news, or on blogs that tend to just rehash news then we would have more transparency.

        Transparency is work … you will have to read, your will have to get all the information to understand facts. i honestly don’t believe that the main reason for lack of traspaency in the US today is too little information or too much withheld information but the laziness of the people to care and pay attention. what makes wikileaks stand out is that like a new ipad it is cool and fun to have all this stuff.

  5. I tried posting another comment and I hope it did go through. I just want to add that it is difficult to read the first amendment in any way that would not make WikiLeaks legal. Had the site been purely an anti-American website, they could be in trouble. Since they’re not, they should be safe.

    Good article!

    1. Thanks, JT.

  6. Well.. I see one major difference between NYT and wikileaks – NYT published news and opinions that are the intellectual property of its writers. Wikileaks is publishing stolen material verbatim (minus some names wikileaks say they removed to protect certain individuals). I am surprised that wikileaks is being called a journalistic entity when ANYONE (that includes any 10 yr old) who knows how to publish a document on the internet can do it

    1. The New York Times and other outlets have published exactly the same stolen documents that WikiLeaks has.

      1. Pentagon papers anyone? The Wikileaks-type material of its time and the same overturning of official obfuscation.

    2. To quote Marshall McLuhan, the press by its very nature IS “government by news leak.”

    3. David, sadly you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you’re saying the opinions and related intellectual property is what makes journalism, well you’re deluded and wasting your brain. In fact, the opinions written can cloud what’s going on.
      We’re dealing with an enormous amount of money and power struggles here. And if it’s underlying base is corrupt, there’s not a simple relaxing way to expose it.
      The word you use for Journalism doesn’t matter here. I doubt any of the people involved are thinking, Geez we need status as real journalists. Nobody cares about that. it’s the scary corrupt dangerous element that people are trying to address, so to discontinue bad behavior. That’s it.

  7. Cynthia Typaldos Saturday, December 4, 2010

    Mathew,

    Great point and summary of the latest meta-thinking about Wikileaks. I had already listened to the Jay Rosen video – highly recommend it. Very insightful — Jay seems awfully depressed though about the state of official journalism, and perhaps rightfully so.

    I find the coverage on The Guardian in the UK to be the best. And I was saddened to see that today’s home page of the LATimes did not even mention Wikileaks.

    I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on:

    – What’s next? Will all governments be exposed in this way? What about corporations? Will it extend to individuals — or do we already have Facebook and Twitter for that :-)

    – The internet has been around for 15 years commercially. Why didn’t this happen sooner? In retrospect it seems like an obvious development (of course most brilliant ideas are obvious after someone else thought of them!)

    – How will the emergence of wikileak-style entities affect the stampeded to paywalls by many of the traditional media organizations?

    1. Thanks foe the comment, Cynthia — those are all great questions :-) I am not sure I know the answers, but I think we are only starting to see the real impact the Internet is having on publishing and media.

  8. There is an angle that is sometimes overlooked by Americans or those in the West.
    Chris, you say that the majority of the State Department’s time is spent to prevent the use of force.
    I am from a country where nearly 200 civilians were shot dead in broad day light (2005) for protesting a rigged election. The regime (charged with Genocide), is one of the major recipients of aid from the US government. Aside the obvious case of murders in 2005, more than 100k are imprisoned and many have disappeared. The crimes of this regime continue to this day. Why is the U.S. so generous? Because they want to use this country’s army to do their dirty deed by invading a neighboring state. The terrorist regime would have been hard pressed to survive if it wasn’t for the money, training, logistical and intel support it gets from countries like the USA.
    So force is used, you see. Diplomacy in this case is like hiring hit men to do dirty deeds. There is much at stake in the truth. The more the truth comes out, the better. For so many, anything is better than the perpetual misery and poverty with hidden reasons.

  9. There’s probably going to be some shit about “Well, Assange isn’t American, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to him.” If that’s the case then neither does the Espionage Act or Lieberman’s SHIELD Act.

    The thing is though, our Bill of Rights should be the ideals by which we treat everyone, not just American citizens. If freedom of press applies to Fox or NBC or the New York Times then it also applies to foreign press, and congressmen can’t go around deciding who is press and who isn’t. We don’t need another blacklisting mess where our freedom is a COMPLETE illusion.

  10. i am sorry but this makes no sense. you provide no clear reason why wikileak should be considered to be a media entity. unless you say that every site on the internet by default is a media entity (which i think is not the case). all of the journalistic efforts were and are done by the nyt, spiegel, guardian … all wikileaks is doing is accept packages of data and send them over to actual journalists and then put them on a web site.

    about the coverage of wikileaks … there is no news in the current material. everyone who reads the newspaper across the last decade knew most if not all of the material. yes not as clearly written out as in the cables and maybe not with as colorful illustations such as batman and robin, but there is very little news in all this … well with the exception of the leak itself. and the guardian seems to be best in exploiting this.

    1. Everything on the internet is about communication and anything that facilitates communication is media.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_(communication)

    2. You bring up an excellent point, Carsten: is anyone who publishes information on the Internet a media entity? I don’t know if I want to go that far, but the ability to publish and have that content read by potentially millions of people is what used to distinguish the media from everyone else. How are we supposed to distinguish them now, when anyone can publish anything almost instantly and achieve the same thing? What I am saying is that the goals of WikiLeaks and the NYT are not very different, even though their methods may be.

      1. NYT is mass media. Wikilinks is mass disintermediation.

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