WikiLeaks and Free Flow of Information on the Internet

  • Dec 16, 2010

    There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down. . . . Given what we now know, that [ January 21, 2009] Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.

            --John Naughton,

    In past weeks, many commentators have greeted the release of classified U.S. documents published by WikiLeaks as a marvelous demonstration of the power of the Internet. Some have gleefully asserted, as John Naughton does above, that U.S. objections to the dissemination of the documents demonstrate the hypocrisy of U.S. government leaders who claim to support the free flow of information on the Internet.

    It might be well, however, to note some simple facts. First, most of those who praise WikiLeaks for releasing this classified U.S. data probably do not believe that WikiLeaks or any other Internet entity should have free access to the content of their own personal e-mail messages. Or their own personal financial data. Or their children’s school records. Or the content of the equivalent to their country’s Social Security Administration databases. All those data are protected, in the United States and in many other countries, by legislation that forbids the release of the kinds of personally identifiable information that those files contain. While most of the content of our theoretically stolen Gmail would be very dull, some of it would undoubtedly be sufficiently titillating to get the WikiLeaks juices flowing, particularly if it contained references to the rich and famous, or to countries unpopular with WikiLeakers. Some of that Gmail content might even shed light on issues of real public interest. But it seems unlikely that anyone would suggest that the decision to withhold such information from general circulation without the owner’s consent reflects a hypocritical disregard for the importance of the free flow of information on the Internet.

    Some comments supportive of the WikiLeaks activities have drawn a distinction between actually hacking into private information and receiving it from someone else who has taken it, noting that Assange did the latter.2 That distinction might well be less meaningful to the commentators if the data being disseminated so broadly and indiscriminately included their own bank account numbers, Social Security or other identifying numbers, or personal e-mail content.

    That some extreme American voices have become pretty shrill as they engage in personally focused verbal assaults on WikiLeaks celeb Assange should not be used as an excuse to avoid the central issue.3 Concern about the fact that protected data—data protected for a reason, as the kinds of data described above are protected for a reason—was stolen and used to damage the owner or the subjects is not inconsistent with the highest regard for free flow of information on the Internet. Lio Xiobao is not in prison for having worked aggressively to disseminate stolen data. He’s in prison for having ventured to think about ways to make his world better and for sharing those ideas with the rest of the world. This is what freedom on the Internet should be about: freedom to create, express, and share, not the freedom to violate privacy for personal gain, whether financial or (as it seems in this case) emotional—and yes, governments do have what could be described as “privacy rights” within a specific legal framework and subject to oversight.

    Now both the ill will of many pundits and WikiLeaks cyberattacks have shifted to service providers who have decided not to host/carry WikiLeaks material. An NPR commentator closed her story with the observation that “in the United States [by contrast with China], it's becoming more common for private companies to do the censoring.”4  A commentator observed in the same NPR interview that companies like Amazon can “do anything they want” based on their terms of agreement.5

    Amazon and Twitter and the rest are companies, not social services, and with specific kinds of exceptions, they are not accountable to customers for their policies. We can (at least theoretically) vote on those policies with our wallets by choosing not to accept them. Whether anyone ought to feel justified and righteous about stopping other users, whose sensibilities are perhaps not affected in quite the same way, from using those services by mounting distributed denial-of-service attacks may be another question.

    The Amazon statement on WikiLeaks issued last week in fact makes reference to its terms of agreement and spells out (in a refreshingly short statement) precisely why it invited WikiLeakers to “operate elsewhere.” The particularly salient observations were these:
    …our terms of service state that “you [the customer] represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.” It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy. Human rights organizations have in fact written to WikiLeaks asking them to exercise caution and not release the names or identities of human rights defenders who might be persecuted by their governments6 [emphasis added].

    Quite apart from concern about innocent people who could be put in jeopardy, Amazon has an obligation to its stakeholders to conduct itself in such a way that the company is open neither to criminal charges of any kind nor to behavior in general that would decrease its profitability. Like all Internet companies, Amazon exists to generate profit for its stakeholders, not to advance an Internet ideology unrelated to that effort.

    Twitter has been another corporate target. Clear differences between Twitter’s decision to refrain from propagating WikiLeaked material and its willingness to broadcast messages from protesting Iranian students appear to be surprisingly hard to grasp for some critics, who have been ready to cry “hypocrisy!” on this issue as well.7 The material known as WikiLeaks is not an original expression of opinion by the individuals hawking it; as the Amazon statement properly points out, the WikiLeakers neither own nor have rights to that content. By contrast, the Iranian student tweets broadcast by Twitter were generated by the activist students in question; certainly the Iranian government sought to limit their freedom of expression and Twitter kept the information flow going for as long as possible. The appropriate comparison with Twitter’s decision not to assist in WikiLeaks’ dissemination of U.S. classified information would be its decision if, given the choice, to disseminate Chinese or Iranian classified information. The choices made in such a situation would be interesting, but we should not be surprised if some of these companies chose not to censor or to promote—but to take the actions that best served the interests of their stakeholders.

    Individual freedom of expression as exemplified by the Iranian students, the work of Lio Xiobao, and millions of people every day online and off differs greatly from the fencing of a huge cache of illicit data. This fact has been lost sight of in this debate. So, too, has the fact that with freedom comes responsibility, that the Internet is as much a commercial as a “personal” space, and that Internet companies are not our “friends”: they are guided, hopefully by right and wrong, but certainly as well by their best interests, which hopefully lead them to obey the law and exercise responsible control over their systems and services.

    Adriane Lapointe is a visiting fellow in the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this article are solely her own and do not represent any entity of the U.S. government.

     is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
    © 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

    1. John Naughton, “Live with the WikiLeakable World or Shut Down the Net: It’s Your Choice,”

    2. This comes closest to raising the question of whether Assange is a journalist and in receipt of information just as the New York Times was in receipt of the Pentagon Papers—probably the most interesting and substantive question associated with the WikiLeaks issue. Perhaps the time has come for a clear definition of what constitutes web journalism. For a brief overview of related issues, see “WikiLeaks Fallout: Unease over Web Press Freedoms,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, December 13, 2010,
    . For a more substantive and complex discussion of whether WikiLeaks is or is not a journalistic entity, with a variety of opinions expressed, see David Carr, “WikiLeaks Taps Power of the Press,” New York Times, December 12, 2010,

    3. Some free speech exercised in hyperbolic bad taste is described in Steven Erlanger, “Europeans Criticize Fierce U.S. Response to Leaks,”

    4. Laura Sydell, Corporations Are Drawn into WikiLeaks Controversy,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, December 13, 2010,

    5. Clay Shirkey, quoted on Corporations Are Drawn into WikiLeaks Controversy.”

    6. Amazon Web Service,

    7. Tim Wu, quoted on Corporations Are Drawn into WikiLeaks Controversy.”