Censorship: Should Wikileaks Be Regulated Or Let Free Speech

Student Writers: Jennifer B, Michael C, Melissa M, Steven R

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Abstract

WikiLeaks is a website that leaks confidential government information from all over the world for public access. It is an attempt at equalizing the power by making citizens aware of internal government affairs. The WikiLeaks controversy is very applicable to the average citizen’s life because the controversy centers on government censorship. The reasons that condone the censorship of WikiLeaks are homeland security, protection of individual identities, and the possibility of loss of national support and it’s affect on the nation’s overall effectiveness. The reasons for allowing sites like WikiLeaks are that censorship can be seen as an inhibition of the freedom of speech, and it gives the citizens the information to do their job by keeping governmental power in check. Out of all this rises the question, “Who should be given the authority to censor who?” Should WikiLeaks be given the authority to decide what is suitable for the public? Should the U.S. government be allowed to censor itself? Whoever is given this responsibility is given a lot of power, and power is easily corrupted. The censorship balance must fall somewhere in between these extremes. All information should be released if it will not cause any damage to our national security or individual harm, apart from injured pride. In this way, the citizens can be alert and aware of their government’s actions and can work to reform them if need be. The question of who gets to decide what should be released is much more difficult to determine because everyone has their own agenda, though few admit it.

History

WikiLeaks first appeared on the internet in January of 2007 as a website aimed at “exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East…” WikiLeaks was originally founded by a group of “Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa”. The founders remain anonymous to this day (“WikiLeaks: About”, n.d.).

Since 2007, news reports have called Julian Assange the “founder of WikiLeaks”, a computer programmer and activist (“WikiLeaks: About”, n.d.). With a long history of hacking and accessing sensitive information, Assange believed that “truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies”. Assange had a record of accessing databases and was arrested by the Australian Federal Police the early 90s (Raffi, 2010). In 2006, Assange began work on what would soon become WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange Talks on WikiLeaks (video)

Assange assembled a team of over 1,200 registered volunteers and now has a public Advisory Board for the website. The site still has no current permanent office location, and often performs work while moving about the globe. Members on the board include those of Phillip Adams, a writer film maker, Wang Dan a Tienanmen dissident & historian, and CJ Hinke, Writer, Academic, Activist to name a few (“Wikileaks: Advisory Board”, n.d.).

WikiLeak’s large quantity of documents and information can be credited to a Tor node owned by one of the activists. In 2006 the owner noticed Chinese hackers and began to trace their traffic, sequentially leading to a large amount of valuable information passed between foreign governments and China. Seeing the potential amount of valuable information that could be obtained from monitoring the network, and Assange’s vision, WikiLeak’s was birthed (Raffi, 2010).

In December 2006, WikiLeak’s first article was published titled “a secret decision” by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Pulled from the traffic from the Tor network, the document contained information regarding government officials employing “criminals” as hit men. The validity of the document was never verified. WikiLeaks’ appearance in the world however had created a large stir.

WikiLeaks had successfully created a domain at which had the ability to evade censorship in many countries (Raffi, 2010). Using many thousands of domain names donated by its supporters and encryption written by its cryptographers, WikiLeaks had created a highway for critical and valuable informational (“WikiLeaks: Cover Names”, n.d.; WikiLeaks: About, n.d.). WikiLeaks began taking donations of domain names, in effort to evade censorship in different countries, now in possession of hundreds if not thousands of domains.

By 2009 WikiLeaks had encountered financial pressures. The organization stated the needed to perform fundraisers until January, 2006. Minimum funds were met in February of 2009, however the site launched finally in May of 2010 (“Twitter”, May 19, 2010; “Twitter” February 3, 2010; Warman 2010)
Perhaps WikiLeak’s greatest opportunity for funding came from the controversial video titled “Collateral Murder”. In an even that took place on July 12, 2007, two journalists along with over a dozen “insurgents” were gunned down by an American apache helicopter in a moment of controversial judgment(“Collateral Murder”, 2007). WikiLeaks had received the encrypted video from a group of anonymous “military whistleblowers”, and proceeded to decrypt the video within three months (Raffi, 2010). In early 2010, WikiLeaks had released the full 39 minute video, along with a shorter 18 minute annotated version. Upon releasing the video, WikiLeaks received more than two-hundred thousands dollars in donations.

Collateral Murder (video)

In June of 2010, WikiLeak’s was dropped from a large potential donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. One of 2,400 applicants, WikiLeaks was highly favored to receive part of the $2.74 million dollar grant, but was later cut out (Cohen, 2010). WikiLeaks commented on the issue stating via twitter “Wikileaks was highest rated project in the Knight challenge, strongly recommended to the board but gets no funding. Go figure”. Robert Briggs, Chairmain of the Knight Board, is a former staff judge advocate for the U.S. Air Force. There has been some speculation as to whether or not his presence may have played a roll, considering WikiLeak’s history of releasing classified and sensitive military information (Cook, 2010).

In November of 2010, WikiLeaks registered Sunshine Press Productions, a business WikiLeaks publishes through. No office has been setup for the company, yet. Hrafnsson, a spokesperson for WikiLeaks made the statement: "We want WikiLeaks to have a global presence and having a business in Iceland is part of this plan.” (“WikiLeaks registers company in Iceland”, 2010”)

Central Question

Many examples exist of people circumventing censorship with innovation: "For the Green Movement in Iran, it was Twitter; for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, it was YouTube; for the "color revolutions" of the former Soviet Union, it was mobile phones." Even governments with a long history of successful censorship, such as China, have trouble keeping tabs on all of the technological loopholes. "No matter how restrictive the regulations or how severe the repercussions, communities around the world have exhibited enormous creativity in sidestepping constraints on technology in order to exercise their freedoms.”(Diebert)

Can WikiLeaks be censored? The whole internet cannot be censored. With WikiLeaks being strategically placed in Germany, England, and America by the newspapers and Julian Assange working out of Sweden, WikiLeaks has become a global phenomenon. Different organizational groups or even governmental groups can attempt to censor what WikiLeaks has become; however, once the information is out it cannot be stopped.

On October 22, 2010, there was a release of documents that had a record breaking amount. They didn’t release all of them because of their sensitive nature. Out of 391,832 documents about the US governmental operations and its forces, only an average of 90,000 were released, and more are being looked through because of sensitive names in them: “Wikileaks has said only that it will use modified cryptographic and rerouting technologies…[but] all the security measures that Wikileaks claims to be using have known weaknesses.” While the technological protections are extensive, they seem to be there more able to hide people rather than information.

Speaking to using encryption of information to hide the people behind it, “there may be legitimate reasons for all the mystery; maybe the Wikileaks founders believe they need to remain decentralized and in the shadows to protect themselves from retribution, legal or otherwise” (Goldberg). Some evidently think that Wikileaks is not being honest about wanting to avoid legal action. The question that needs to be answered who is checking the “checkers” in regards to what information is leaked and what informtion is given mention on WikiLeaks. The person or people that exposed information are imperative to the whole organization.

Why did they leak so much information about the US government? Did they leak it because of the retaliation that was done to them or did the leak the information because of their morality or ethical convictions which had been compromised? The opposing sides seem much like a chess game that has reached a stalemate. Various groups think that Wikileaks is an abomination and should not be in operation. Others think that WikiLeaks is a Godsend and that the information released is on the same level of documents released under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. Whoever did the leaking is a saint in the eyes of some and a traitor in the eyes of others. In Peter Ludlow’s article “WikiLeaks and the Hacktivist Culture,” he states, “the real villain is an informal network of revolutionary individuals connected by a shared ethic and culture, the result of decades of collaborative work by people engaged in applying computer hacking to political causes, especially the principle that information-hoarding is evil.

Ex-Hacker exposed WikiLeaks suspect (video)

There is now a broad spectrum of people engaged in this cause, and were Assange to be eliminated today, WikiLeaks would doubtless continue in some form.” (Ludlow) These are various thoughts and veins of how others view WikiLeaks. The central thought is that this organization has grabbed attention globally and wants to make a point that some things do not need to held from the general public, and that people are demanding authority figures be held accountable. Assange said in his CNN interview as well as other interviews that he is the lightning rod for WikiLeaks. The press, whether good or bad, heads straight on with it. One has to wonder if Assange is the distraction to which the main media or even readers in general are suppose to focusing on while the bigger actions are happening behind the scenes. Asssange is the curtain and wikileaks personnel is the machine doing all the difficult ‘dirty’ work that isn’t focused on, which is why some people are a little leery.

Why do they have Assange as the centerfold of WikiLeaks? Why is he is being so focused on instead of the WikiLeaks organization as a whole? The media are great at diversion and it appears that instead of the subjects being released is center stage, Assange is being center stage. Sometimes the focus is more on putting a face on an issue instead of the issue itself. Which makes one think what is exactly going on behind the scences at WikiLeaks (that the media is ignoring)? As Assange’s interviews progress, his demeanor and appearance look like they are unraveling. Mr. Assange is tired and stretched which comes to the surface in the CNN interview that he walked out of. The battle over freedom of speech and regulation is an argument that was old when this country was founded. Our country was founded on freedom of speech, but there is a fine line between freedom of speech and endangerment of people’s lives with sensitive information. Can WikiLeaks be effective using freedom of speech and not putting people into harms ay while sharing secretive government information to the masses? The public does need to know certain things and someone needs to take responsibility needs to be taken for actions that have been covered up. The main question seems to be how can subjects of the sensitive documents be assured protection from harm? Assange says that “no blood has been spilt because of the release of the WikiLeak files,” but how can that truly be measured? If deaths can be tied to the release of these documents, what should be done about it?

Arguments Against WikiLeaks

For those against the power and use of WikiLeaks, homeland security is of utmost priority to protect of the identities of U.S. informants behind enemy lines. Other reasons include the loss of confidence in our government. If the citizens lose confidence in their government, it may not be as effective when they really are telling the truth. This may sound like they are getting what they deserve, but cases like the shooting soldiers could be one in a million and although it is a bad thing, it is still very inconsequential when you look at the overall usual ethical practices our government uses. Many Americans probably do not know that admonition of torture is in the Army Field Manual. The government is very large and not everyone can be kept under strict supervision all the time. The bad actions of a few soldiers should not be used to determine how the U.S. government operates unless it is common. It will also greatly affect the United States’ ability to act as a unified nation. After 911, our nation’s people really pulled together to help each other out. If nobody listened to the government anymore because they distrusted it, we would not be as effective.

The main arguments against censorship of WikiLeaks are that it inhibits freedom of speech and allows citizens more insight into what the government is doing. A lot of people see Julian Assange as a hero of sorts, because he is defying governments in releasing confidential files. It is true, that that is what the media is all about: keeping the government in line. Authorities are much less likely to act suspiciously or follow their own whims if they know that it would be released to the public.

Should WikiLeaks have free reign in spilling government secrets, private business practices, and social taboos on the web? This is a very sticky situation that has no easy solution. If the government were allowed to practice the extremes of censorship, the U.S. would be like China where Google is paid to hide searches relating to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Other unsavory examples are North Korea, where no information is ever leaked out and infiltrators disappear, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who told his people they were winning the war even though they could look out the window and see U.S. troops driving through the streets. However, the opposite extreme can be just as bad. If there was no censorship, the U.S would be a pushover with no international authority. There would be zero security and everyone would live in fear of other governments. The conclusion of this is that obviously censorship must fall somewhere in the middle. WikiLeaks is a way to regulate the government so that we can keep it in line, but at the same time can they really be trusted to not release too much information? According to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, he believes WikiLeaks is right to leak secret information because since “the organizations that know it the best, that know it from the inside out, are spending work to conceal it,” that is “a good indication that when that information gets out it has hope for doing some good” (Ted Talks, 2010). Assange says that he hopes for reform, and that it is what the history of journalism is all about. The difficult part about this is that regardless of whom it is the citizens still have to trust somebody. They have to trust either the government to be straight and release all possible information that would not endanger anybody, or they have to trust the media and people like Julian Assange. The media’s role is seen as the go-between the government and citizens. The media is given raw information and they have to sift through it all and make connections and conclusions and then relate it back to the public. It is easy to twist the story to make one component more potent than it really is or easy to not get the full picture. The balance of how much censorship is too much is a very perilous one.

Findings and Conclusion

On Friday, October 22, 2010, WikiLeaks had released the “Iraq War Logs”. Information on the United States presence in Iraq so vast it is being called the largest leak of classified documents in the sites history (“WikiLeaks: Iraq Warlogs”, 2010). Because of the sensitivity of this information regarding personell and soldiers over in Iraq, Critics of the release state that the information has not only placed lives of solders at risk, but could effect future intelligence regarding insurgents (Shenon, 2010). WikiLeaks mentions the possibility of collaberation with the military to keep future releases less sensitive, however the pentagon denies the potential plan (Entous 2010). The Iraq War Logs poses an excellent argument to the destructive nature of declasifying sensitive information.

According to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks states they take great lengths to prevent publishing anything that would compromise their position or the lives of others (Axon, 2010). With the Iraqi War Logs in particular, the Pentagon is contacted ahead of time to ask them for names of importance. This way when these documents are published, anyone who can possibly be placed in harm’s way, do not have their position compromised if they are doing any sort of undercover work. Because of the Pentagon’s refusal to work with WikiLeaks however, all leaks thusfar are highly problematic for the U. S. Military.

WikiLeaks Enrages Pentagon (video)

While sensitive information can be troubling at times, WikiLeaks’ record for governmental leaks isn’t always against the best wishes of the people. “Collateral Murder”, WikiLeaks’ video, displays a horrific scene of bad judgment by a U.S. soldier. The two part video clearly depics the murders of over ten non-hostile Iraqis, two of which were Reuters news reporters. The gunmen in the video identify the Iraqis as hostile, mistaking their camera equipment for RPGs and rifles. As a result of WikiLeaks releasing this information, the United States Central Command has yet to take legal action over any U. S. Personell involved in the attack. Claims were made in defense of the soldiers, stating "The cameras could easily be mistaken for slung AK-47 or AKM rifles, especially since neither cameraman is wearing anything that identifies him as media or press” (Cohen, 2010). Regardless of the legal action taken on the soldiers, the video has sent the nation into a state of vigilence and scrutiny towards the United States military, that wasn’t around before. As Assange mentions “ [we] expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations” (“WikilLeaks: About”, n.d.).

The spotlight of WikiLeaks is unprecedented but the subject of censorship is an old argument. Breakthroughs like the Freedom of Information Act has helped to limit the amount of secrets that can be kept by governments, but has not kept them (along with other organizations such religions) from presuming authority over what information the public should be allowed to have. Mistakes and atrocious tragedies occur in wars, and while this is not new, the scrutiny which organizations and governments are under is more than ever. To some, WikiLeaks performs the role of increasing accountability for all and making organizations and countries live up to their own principles. To members of these organizations along with other people concerned about security, WikiLeaks sets a dangerous precedent that can be further misused and cost lives in the future. Somewhere in the middle lies the correct path for censorship in this current age of information. Until there are clear national and international guidelines on the issue, the question will remain heated and critical.

References

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Axon, Samuel. Secretary of Defense: WikiLeaks Hasn’t Compromised Intelligence Sources. Mashable. September, 2010. Web. November 22, 2010. < http://mashable.com/2010/10/18/wikileaks-dod-intelligence/>

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