Wikileaks and “Net Freedom”

Between words and actions

Contributed by Jillian C. York Berkman Center for Internet & Society
March 30, 2011
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When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first address on Internet freedom in January of 2010, pledging to make online freedoms part of the “American brand,” open Internet and free speech advocates alike praised her speech, recognizing the vital role of online technologies in opening up repressive regimes and changing the media landscape.  Clinton’s vision of tearing down virtual walls resonated with those who have, for years, been aware of the restrictive censorship placed on the Web by governments from Iran to China.

And yet, had Clinton’s audience known that, just ten months later, the US government would be embroiled in controversy over Wikileaks’ release of diplomatic cables, the following statement might have resonated as well:
  

[These] challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.


Following the release of thousands of diplomatic cables in November, various politicians and government entities clamped down on online freedoms in reaction to the leaks.  First was Amazon.com, which dropped Wikileaks from its servers following calls from Senator Joseph Lieberman, starting a domino effect from other intermediaries.  Tableau Software, which hosted visualizations of the leaks, soon took down content.  The very next day, EveryDNS.net terminated the WikiLeaks.org domain, followed by PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard cutting off donations to the whistleblowing entity.  Not one of the takedowns was the result of legal action.

In addition to the removal of Wikileaks-related content from websites, federal government staffers were told not to view the content of the cables, and Wikileaks and its mirrors are blocked by the Library of Congress.  Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs warned students who might be considering a government career not to post on social media sites about the cables, for fear of future rejection.

Though the Department of State appears to have been uninvolved in the pressure campaign toward companies, the Department of Justice later subpoenaed Twitter for the private records of Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, as well as Jacob Appelbaum and Rop Gonggrijp, for their alleged involvement with Wikileaks.  A judge ruled that Twitter must give up the records, a decision that is still being appealed.

If nothing else, all of these examples give the impression that the United States is not truly interested in free expression online, that the “Net freedom” agenda is for “them” and not “us.”  Coupled with similar hypocrisies—the export of Internet filtering software by US companies to authoritarian regimes, and the strict controls placed by the Commerce and Treasury Departments on software and communications tools exports to countries like Iran and Syria—the perception abroad is that the United States is in no position to advocate for online freedom globally when it can’t do so at home.

Furthermore, the decisions taken by Amazon and other companies send a message to other online service providers: that intermediary censorship—that is, censorship not by a government but by a corporate entity—is okay.  Therefore, when Facebook removes the page of an Egyptian pro-democracy group or Flickr takes down images of Egypt’s secret police because the person who posted them was not their owner—or worse yet, when a Chinese search engine pervasively filters search results, those service providers have an easy excuse.

Wikileaks is not an exception: whether or not it is legitimate to go after those who stole the cables, once the cables are out in the world, there’s no putting them back and any attempt to block that content from public view is censorship.