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Tag Archives: freedom of speech

So, the whole Wikileaks thing, eh. What should you think about it? Read on to find out.

What’s it all about anyway?

Maybe you didn’t follow, so let’s recap. Wikileaks is a website that publishes well, leaked information. Mostly governmental documents, diplomatic cables and the like, but lots of other stuff too.

Now, the interesting part which deserves a reaction is that recently, various governments have strongly criticized Wikileaks, and called it a security threat, calling for it’s censorship and for it to be basically closed down.

Not only is that preposterous, but quite dangerous and wrong. The rest of this post will show why.

The appropriate reaction

Let’s assume for a minute that Wikileaks’ revelations are reprehensible. What is the appropriate reaction towards reprehensible contents? The answer for this is known for decades, and yet people – and especially governments – keep advocating the wrong response.

Basically, the choice is between a censorship system, or a responsibility system. Annoyingly, it seems many people are confused as to what both systems mean.

Censorship

Censorship means blocking speech a priori, i.e., it is blocked before it is even publicly uttered. There are two ways this is usually implemented. Either someone (usually a government agency) reviews all speech to be published and either accepts or refuses it’s publication, or somebody is purely and simply silenced.

If you support either censorship system you are basically saying that you do not believe in freedom of speech, since you consider people are only entitled to publicize approved speech. This is very much a totalitarian system.

Worryingly, this is what people explicitly or implicitly advocate in the Wikileaks case.

Responsibility

A responsibility based system is a posteriori. It’s quite simple really. If publicly expressed speech is harmful, the publisher is responsible. As always, reparation can be made both in nature (removal of the harmful content), and by equivalent (paying money to whoever was harmed).

The key element is that no assumption is made on who is speaking. Only specific contents are punished. If both harmful and unharmful contents are uttered by a specific person or organisation, only the harmful ones are punished.

Why responsibility is better

It should be obvious, but as so often, I’d rather make sure the obvious is stated:

– The first censorship implementation system requires an impartial party to review all contents. Who can be entrusted with this mission, bearing in mind nobody will be able to review his actions since the contents won’t be published? In all known such systems, the review was highly opinion-based, politically motivated. And it cannot be otherwise.

– Responsibility only punishes actual harm, whereas the second implementation method of censorship (currently advocated by many in the Wikileaks case) blocks both harmful and unharmful contents. This means that such censorship actually punishes you for crimes you haven’t yet committed.

– Responsibility requires an actual damage being proven (including for instance violation of a law). This allows for a factual review, in front of a court of law, allowing for proper defence by the person uttering the speech. This is not possible in a censorship system, where you’re just blocked and have nothing to say about it.

Debunking some lame arguments

I have hopefully shown that whatever you think of Wikileaks, if action should be taken against it, it should be responsibility based. Now I will debunk a series of criticisms targeted against Wikileaks.

It’s illegal!

Well, I would not be surprised quite a few of Wikileaks’ documents (and their publishing) infringe on certain laws. However, if that is so, how come Wikileaks hasn’t been brought to court? Australian Police recently concluded there was no evidence of unlawfulness. So maybe they haven’t done anything legally wrong. If so, seeking any form of punishment is, well, illegal and totalitarian.

Wikileaks endangers people

I fail to fully understand this one. Wikileaks doesn’t reveal plans that haven’t yet been executed upon. Revealing stuff after the fact doesn’t endanger anyone [UPDATE: by stuff, I mean anything else than people’s names]. Furthermore, when they did mess up the anonymization of certain documents (which is the only case where after the fact damage can be made), they swiftly suggested partnerships with their critics to improve the anonymization process. Tellingly, the critics did next to nothing. Makes me think this argument is a straw man.

Furthermore, as far as privacy violations go, regular newspapers do much worse. They routinely disclose names of criminal suspect investigations, often ruining lives in the process. Singling out Wikileaks for this is hypocritical at best.

Why not disclose all personal emails?

This one is quite funny. If you’re so keen on having all these secret governmental papers disclosed, the argument goes, how would you like it if all your emails were publicly disclosed?

Of course, this is a ludicrous argument that completely misses the point. Natural persons have a (very important) right to privacy, which would be violated by the disclosure of their personal communications. Governments and their agencies, on the other hand, don’t. What’s more, Governments should be accountable to the people for their actions. Knowing what they do is necessary for this, and disclosure of their communications aids this goal.

I’ll dig into this further, but for now, let’s just remember that it’s ridiculous to compare Governments and natural persons in this context.

Wikileaks hasn’t released anything important

This one is funny too. It says that Wikileaks is useless because it hasn’t revealed anything important or interesting. If so, then why make a fuss about it and not just let it be?

Unless the point being made is that only useful and ground breaking information deserves to be published. If that’s the reasoning, then most of what is being published, whether on the web or in paper, should be banned, because most of what’s out there is useless drivel.

Not everyone can handle the information

This is one of the more interesting, and also more worrying, arguments made.

It actually contains two parts:

1) There is too much information, nobody can process that much information.

2) The information is too complex, very few people can make anything out of it.

Where can I even start with this?

First off, nobody ever said everyone in the whole wide world should master knowledge about all subjects equally. Well, I’m pretty sure some crackpot socialist might have said that once, but let’s get real.

Nobody can process the quantity of information being published in all the newspapers of a small country like Belgium either. Should they all be banned too? And maybe replaced by only one manageable newspaper which we could call The Truth? Oh wait, that’s been done already… Seriously, people!

And then the argument that not everybody can understand the information or put it in context. So what? I’m fairly certain that most people coming across my post here aren’t able to properly understand the latest journals in particle physics either. Should they be banned too?

Let me break the news: we live in a complex world. Nobody can fully understand it today. But that’s ok. Because different people have different areas of expertise and master various different areas of knowledge.

After all, the complexity of the information being leaked isn’t any greater than what becomes available to the general public in governmental archives after 30 years. And guess what: the information in those archives is meaningfully processed by experts. We call them historians, political scientists, and sometimes journalists. Why couldn’t they process more recent information which is the same in nature?

The importance of what these people do will be re-stated later.

Secrets are necessary

Another perplexing one as far as I’m concerned. I hear claims that governments need to protect secrets.

I’m very sorry, but which governmental secrets deserve to be protected?

The usual suspect is diplomacy. “Oh my, but diplomacy wouldn’t work without secrecy”, is an oft made claim. Well, would it really be such a bad thing if diplomacy didn’t work? I mean, if we’re saying that Governments should be able to publicly say one thing and secretly do another, very sorry, but no. That removes all accountability and basically means citizens are deceived. Which is unacceptable.

Now, if the purpose is to say that negotiations sometimes need to carry some secrecy to be effective, sure. But then who’s to be blamed if the these secrets are revealed? The whistle-blower, or the negligent party who allowed the secret to be revealed?

And, to be honest, I even have some defiance about these secret negotiations. A few examples will come later as to why.

Another area where secrecy is claimed to be useful is the military. First, it should be noted that Wikileaks has only, to the best of my knowledge, revealed things after the fact, i.e., has not revealed any military plans while they were current.

Furthermore, you should here again be much more worried about the fact that a relatively limited organisation such as Wikileaks could gain access to military information. It means the people who could benefit from that knowledge sure as hell could gain access to it too.

Apart from those ones, I haven’t yet heard of any even remotely convincing example of governmental secret that deserves to be kept.

Why Wikileaks style free speech matters

I’ve hopefully shown that arguments against Wikileaks are weak at best, and that if Wikileaks does commit something bad, it should be acted upon based on responsibility and not censorship.

But now it’s time to see why Wikileaks is something extremely healthy indeed.

See, if democracy is to even remotely work, you have to be certain that checks and balances are correctly in place. This basically means that no single government or governmental agency can act without being controlled and kept in check by counter-powers.

One of the most important of these counter-powers is traditionally, but incorrectly, known as the press.

Naming this the press is historically understandable, but inaccurate. The actual counter-power is the free flow of information within the governed society. The press has historically been the main vector of this flow, but is by no means the only one, especially in this day and age.

Basically, this counter-power is based on the fact citizens can have access to information that enables them to better judge and evaluate their Government, and, ultimately, control it. Which is kind of the point in the first place.

As we have seen, some are so rash as to say that Wikileaks is too complex for citizens. But that’s where historians, political scientists and journalists come in handy. They can use Wikileaks as a source to better inform citizens, via analysis and vulgarization.

Whether Wikileaks has yet completely fulfilled this role is irrelevant. It has the potential to do so. And the hidden agenda of those opposing it is to silence counter-powers. Which is downright terrifying.

Because contrary to what some naysayers try to make believe, this kind of counter-power is useful. At the end of the day, this is the kind of thing that allowed to know about (very non-exhaustive list) in no particular order:

Watergate

The Iran Contra affair

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (Those defending the secrecy of diplomatic negotiations don’t look so good now, do they?)

The Iraq prison abuse scandals

– Miterrand’s involvement in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior

Gulags

Etc. These things were revealed by investigative journalism. Which has nearly gone the way of the dodo. It’s good that Wikileaks is picking up the mantle.

So it’s really up to you to decide. Do you want to be on the side of those who would rather this kind of thing remained secret “for the greater good of the State”?

I don’t.

Conclusion

All in all, the whole story is quite easy.

Arguments against Wikileaks are mostly bogus. Wikileaks is one example of those phenomena that make the difference between (relative…) freedom and totalitarianism. So it should be supported on principle, all the more so because there is no evidence it has caused any harm other than ruffling Governments’ feathers.

Were it to err, the adequate solution would be the time tested solution of responsibility. Not censorship.

You’re free to disagree. Totalitarians do. But unlike me, they’ll deny you the freedom to disagree with them.