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Wikileaks: the free press fight of our time?

Don't be confused by the new battlefield of the Internet, Wikileaks's ability to continue publishing is shaping up to be a traditional free press fight of our time.

"If this were a newspaper and the government shut down its printing presses, there would be an national outrage, and that's precisely what's happening here," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University.

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To put it in some perspective, imagine this scenario:

A U.S. newspaper received hundreds of documents that exposed the inner workings of government decision-making at the highest levels, and published a compendium of the documents, using its own printing press.

As the newspaper special edition started to roll off the press and onto the trucks, the truck drivers found that the streets in front of the printing facility were blocked by big trucks and public works crews who suddenly decided to tear up the street without notice.

The newspaper delivery drivers, ever resourceful, used a rear exit and started delivering the papers to their on-the-ground delivery people in neighborhoods across the city. But those people were constantly getting pulled over by local police for minor traffic infractions. Others followed the delivery people and picked up every newspaper that was tossed on the front lawns. Most subscribers never got their morning paper.

At the newsstands, shadowy people either stole newspapers out of the boxes, or simply nailed them shut.

Back in the newsroom, a computer hardware company informed the editor-in-chief that it was coming to collect the computers that the newspaper leased to put out the newspaper. The reason: using the technology to publish documents that supposedly weren't rightfully theirs to publish.

The action was effective: this newspaper with a circulation of 500,000 people only managed to get this special, newsworthy edition out to only a tenth of its subscribers.

Freedom of the press? Sure, this newspaper has the right to run its own presses. The government and its partisan supporters would never interfere with that process. (Or would they?)

But they could make it difficult to disseminate the information.

Take this scenario and apply it to Web publishing. I would argue that this is exactly what we're seeing now with Wikileaks, the secrets-spilling Website that's been at the center of massive leaks that are exposing U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents are helping people to judge whether or not the U.S. government's public statements square with its behavior behind the scenes.

I don't think that Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, has yet said Wikileaks does not have the right to publish, though the Senate foreign intelligence committee is apparently calling for Wikileaks' founder, Julian Assange, to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. We'll see if the U.S. Justice Department can do that.

But there are government and economic forces at work that appear to be putting pressure on the infrastructure that underpins Web publishing, in the case of Wikileaks.

We are seeing the outer limits of freedom of speech and the press being tested right now. Are Web service providers hiding behind the language of their "terms of service," rather than wrapping their enterprise in the cloak of the First Amendment?

In the past few days, Amazon has booted Wikileaks off of its servers for not following its "terms of service."

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"It's clear that WikiLeaks doesn't own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content," Amazon wrote.

But generally speaking, the U.S. government does not have copyright protections for the work its officials produce.

Moving on past Amazon, another web service provider, Tableau Software, which allows users to post charts, was asked by Sen. Joe Lieberman to take down some charts depicting Wikileaks' references to countries. The information itself was not secret or classified per se.

But the senator put government pressure on this Seattle company, which caved, and took down the charts, according to this MSNBC report.

Next up: a web service provider called EveryDNS. Blaming web attacks that are destabilizing its infrastructure, EveryDNS stopped doing business with Wikileaks, which effectively took the site offline until it had to switch to a service in Switzerland. Instead of using Wikileaks.org, the site is now available at Wikileaks.ch.

Reuters reports that the French government is also looking at ways to deny Wikileaks use of web servers in that country.

This is all troubling behavior, in my book. What do you think? Let's kickstart a conversation about this critical topic.

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