Wikileaks, censorship and the chilling effect

It’s hard to figure out where to even begin on this one. I’ve only been casually following the Wikileaks developments, mostly through the links posted by @kotarski (an already-passionate guy who has been spurred into overdrive by this one), and at this point it already feels like too much has happened to even get any thoughts together.

Where do you start? This is a situation where multiple political and journalistic figures have called for the death of someone who hasn’t conclusively broken any laws – and the only laws he’s accused of breaking at this point carry a four-year prison term, hardly enough to warrant a death sentence. You have journalists intentionally or carelessly misrepresenting both the leaks and the arrest, the American government rushing to implement measures that could lead to vast internet censorship without so much as a defence hearing. And as of today, you have a leading American national security figure calling for the prosecution of one of that nation’s most venerable newspapers, for publishing documents damaging to the US’s reputation. Not, it should be noted, for endangering lives or anything as serious as that – the Pentagon itself has explained that Wikileaks’ documents have not led to any actual deaths, despite the government’s refusal to help with redacting particularly dangerous information. It should go without saying that the same is not true of those who created the documents in the first place.

Mastercard, Visa and Paypal have stopped allowing donations to Wikileaks, even as they all freely allow you to donate to the KKK. Amazon.com pulled its hosting of the site, and a major DNS server stopped pointing to the site, leading to a call for the creation of a “shadow” DNS system less subject to the whims of government. All this at the behest of a security agency with a grudge against a journalistic organization that it is unable to charge with any crime.

And on top of that, at least one respected American school is telling its essentially telling its students that they have a duty not to look at the documents that Wikileaks have revealed, especially if they want to go on to diplomatic positions. Apparently, Columbia University believes that the best thing to do when confronted with information that a government has declared confidential is to put your hands over your ears and close your eyes — although it’s not clear if that standard holds true for information classified by other governments or just the US. After all, American diplomats are being asked to act as spies, so the respect for privacy seems a bit one-sided. (Note: Colombia has apparently gone back on this position).

In a class discussion yesterday, we were talking about Foucault and his belief that the only way to confront the hidden power structures in society is to force them to act in a way that reveals their existence. This would certainly seem to be one of those times. Any ideas that people had about free expression on the internet, about the value of a free press, about transparency and accountability, about unbiased educational standards, are all being called into question. Political figures who endorsed the value — and the necessity — of journalists pushing through government censorship are now calling for their government to censor journalists.

But this is what I mean. Five-hundred words in, and I still haven’t listed a day’s worth of facts, or addressed the content of the Wikileaks documents, or done much more than amass a collection of links. The only coherent picture I can make out of it all is exceedingly cynical about governments, media and corporate institutions, and overly idealistic about the people donating to Wikileaks, finding ways to circumvent the restrictions that the dominant power structures are imposing and becoming vocal about their dissatisfaction with a system that prizes largely pointless secrecy over truth and accountability.

In fact, the main reason I’m posting this is that the first time I thought about posting about it, I actually questioned whether doing so was in some way dangerous. And the fact that the atmosphere out there is such that it dissuades people from even entering a discussion — that the rhetoric from the government and politicians is having a legitimate chilling effect on the debate — is reason enough to get involved, even in a minor way.

Now, to wait and see how it all plays out.

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3 Responses to “Wikileaks, censorship and the chilling effect”
  1. Mary says:

    I think what the Amazon and Visa/MC etc. issue has shown us is just how much our infrastructure relies on a few enormous corporations. If something like Wikileaks wants to continue, shadow infrastructure might be the only way to go. But then how many people will be able to access or find the information on the shadow network? What’s the point of leaking something if no one notices or can access it?

    It occurs to me that if Wikileaks had used Facebook to distribute the cables (ha!), then the move to shut down FB servers would have pissed way more people off than Amazon pulling its support. After all, how many people would be upset that they could no longer play Farmville? And why not? Why not use the most popular social network the world? Why not stick to the man by subverting the man?

    I’m halfway into my first coffee of the day, so I’m not sure any of this makes sense. But my hesitance about posting lies more in how unqualified I feel to comment on issues regarding diplomacy and international relations, though that is countered by my interest in media and power structures.

  2. griffithinsider says:

    I’m writing a thesis on Public Trust in WikiLeaks, the Media and the Government and need to know what your opinions are. The online survey is multiple choice and will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Please follow the link: http://www.kwiksurveys.com/?s=ILLLML_9669e09d. Would be great if you would encourage others to do the survey also.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kris Kotarski, Clint Burnham and Jason Starnes, Peter Hemminger. Peter Hemminger said: Wikileaks, censorship and the chilling effect: http://wp.me/pK87l-e7 […]



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