Last December, WikiLeaks stirred up debate when it, once again, released sensitive government documents to the world. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief, quickly became a public enemy, and the story brought up a wide range of issues about the role of journalists, governments, and the freedom of the press. The leak, however, also raised the question of just what a publication is in the eyes of the government and if press freedom should extend to web-only publications, especially when they may not be based in the U.S. (or anywhere else, in this case). In my view, it absolutely must and should.
In a similar case in 1971, The New York Times went to court against the U.S. government in order to print what became known as the Pentagon Papers. The case resulted when Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, released papers outlining the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, unleashing a firestorm when the papers were published in The Times. At the time, the court ruled in favor of freedom of the press over the government's need for secrecy, and a precedent was established.
Some 40 years later, we have WikiLeaks.
In December, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails transmitted-over supposedly secure lines-from American embassies around the world to Washington, D.C. These cables contained frank assessments of world leaders by U.S. diplomats, some of which, shall we say, were less than flattering.
President Barack Obama talked of finding a way to prosecute those responsible for the leaks. The Pentagon circled the wagons and tried desperately to find ways to prevent future leaks, while searching for ways to shut the site down. Some pundits even suggested the Pentagon take military action against the servers hosting WikiLeaks' data, or-even more outrageously-against Assange.
Businesses including Amazon.com, MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal cut ties with WikiLeaks. Assange himself was the target of threats and accused of sexually assaulting two women-charges that seem a bit convenient given the circumstances. On Dec. 7, Assange was arrested in London when he turned himself in to a police station.
In a blog post on The New Yorker's website, Raffi Khatchadourian compared the U.S. government's reaction to WikiLeaks to the RIAA's (Recording Industry Association of America) reaction to Napster in the late 1990s. By overreacting, he reasoned, the government would end up exacerbating the problem. He was right; thousands of sympathizers began reproducing the WikiLeaks data on mirror sites all around the world, making censorship virtually impossible. A hacker group called Anonymous vowed to-and subsequently did-go after companies that stopped accepting WikiLeaks' business.
The U.S. government reacted predictably, as any large, slow-moving institution does. The Pentagon spoke of cementing USB ports to prevent people from copying documents to thumb drives. Meanwhile, the rest of government was doing everything in its considerable power to shut down the WikiLeaks site.
It got me thinking: If WikiLeaks weren't a web-only publication, or if it were a prominent U.S.-based digital publication (i.e., Slate or The Huffington Post), would the U S. be reacting in the same fashion? After all, The New York Times published the WikiLeaks cables with redactions as its editors saw fit (to protect the identity of a confidential source, for instance). Yet there was no attempt to shut down The New York Times or freeze its bank accounts.
As this column went to press, the situation continued to develop, but what became more and more clear to me as I continued reading about this case was that this wasn't a national security issue so much as a freedom of the press issue. And Julian Assange (whether he is a good person at heart or not) is very much akin to a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg.
The situation gets admittedly muddied a bit by the fact that WikiLeaks is not a U.S.-based publication, although it did have servers operating inside U.S. borders before they were shut down. It's a complex international legal case, one that I'm not entirely equipped to speak about, but I can say this: If the U.S. government chooses to prosecute WikiLeaks under U.S. law, then it makes sense to me that WikiLeaks should be subject to whatever press protection is allowed under U.S. law. The government can't have it both ways. In 2010, the idea of the press may be changing, but the freedoms that are associated with it should remain, regardless of whether a publication exists on paper or as zeros and ones.