Attacks on WikiLeaks threaten online speech, press freedom
WikiLeaks is under attack from powerful government and corporate officials and entities. The attacks are an assault not only on WikiLeaks, but on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of the Internet.
Of greatest concern are the efforts to deny WikiLeaks access to the Internet and to financial services. We do not know of publicly available evidence that these efforts — which include reported denial of service attacks on WikiLeaks websites from unknown sources, terminated service agreements from companies like Amazon and PayPal, and shuttered bank accounts around the world — have been coordinated by the U.S. government, though many suspect this to be the case. Public Citizen has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests that we hope will reveal more about the government’s response.
What we do know is that the actions of powerful corporations to sever commercial relations with WikiLeaks occur in the shadow of what major media outlets have called a government declaration of war against WikiLeaks. Amazon reportedly decided to stop providing computing services to WikiLeaks after contact from the office of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). PayPal says it cut service to WikiLeaks in response to statements from the U.S. State Department.
Whether or not coordinated, Public Citizen condemns the unconstrained and unaccountable actions by corporations and the government to deny a disfavored website, nongovernmental organization or journalist enterprise access to the Internet and financial services.
There are no bounds to or remedies for the extralegal campaign against WikiLeaks. The actions threatened and taken against WikiLeaks should worry all traditional journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals who believe in the value of free speech. No safeguards prevent such a campaign against other disfavored NGOs or journalists.
WikiLeaks did not leak the State Department cables; it has published leaked information. This is what newspapers and other media do routinely. It must not be criminalized, nor should it serve as a basis for extralegal attacks on journalists or others.
Specific Issues Raised by Latest WikiLeaks Firestorm
The recent WikiLeaks release is evoking passionate responses and raises an array of issues related to free speech, openness, transparency and accountability. It’s not possible briefly to cover the full range of implicated issues. We offer a few additional comments here:
1. The government has a legitimate interest in classifying some information. Nonetheless, not all classifications are legitimate, and the problem of overclassification is widely acknowledged in the national security community. Moreover, there is often a legitimate public interest in the disclosure even of information that falls into a category that, generally, is properly subject to classification.
2. Absent materially relevant new developments or new information about WikiLeaks’ actions, we call on the U.S. government to end its investigation of WikiLeaks for violations of the Espionage Act or other criminal statutes. These investigations appear to be targeting WikiLeaks for publishing leaked information. Newspapers and other media outlets routinely publish leaked information, and this action should not criminalized through application of existing law, nor through new legislation.
3. Among many of WikiLeaks’ critics, there is a self-reinforcing hysteria surrounding WikiLeaks’ recent disclosures. These critics, in government, media and policy circles, are making irresponsible and factually inaccurate statements, with import far beyond the WikiLeaks case. Dangerous calls for the assassination of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange or wild demands that Assange and WikiLeaks be designated terrorists must be condemned not only for being morally and legally outrageous, but because they will chill free speech for many years to come.
We’re now two weeks into the WikiLeaks disclosures of U.S. State Department cables. It’s time for critics of WikiLeaks to take a breath and come to their senses. And while harsh criticism of WikiLeaks’ practices is perfectly appropriate for those who believe its actions to be wrongful, it’s time for the operational attacks on WikiLeaks and threats against WikiLeaks and Assange to end.
Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.