The commotion over Wikileaks and Julian Assange is incredible. Even more incredible is the polarisation of opinions you find on the internet. It ranges from “Assange for president” to “Assange the digital Osama Bin Laden”.
Stepping away from the opportunistic rhetoric we should realise that this discussion involves fundamental issues concerning information ownership, information privacy, freedom of information and the way we handle information on the Internet.
I believe that the law should just be the written representation of what we as society believe is right and wrong. So this article is not intended to discuss if Wikileaks and Assange are acting unlawfully and should be persecuted but our beliefs, as a society, of what is right and wrong. In itself the lawfulness is already an interesting discussion since the Internet supersedes any geographical boundaries. So which country law should govern the Internet?
Until recently we had a (barely) workable answer to that question. You look at the physical location of the server that stores the information; the law governing the location governs the information. The concept of Cloud Computing which separates the application (and the information it contains) from the physical infrastructure makes an end to that solution.
So again: What law governs information on the Internet? Since the Internet is International the logical answer would be international law. If that is the answer I guess diplomats got a “heads-up” the hard way. The diplomatic wheels should start turning to come to some form of international regulation on this subject.
But back to the principles involved and the question we as society should answer. The first question is “Who owns information that governments create, gather and manage?” If the answer is the government itself than we have very little discussion: Whoever leaked the information from the US Government basically stole it from its rightful owner. That would make Wikileaks a fence of stolen property and thus wrong.
Personally I believe there should be no difference between material and immaterial objects. If somebody gives me a car and I know he stole it, I would be wrong to accept it and use it to my advantage. The same should go for information. Society universally decided that stealing is wrong. If we start questioning that fundamental principle we might as well start thinking about anarchy as a viable way to (dis)organise our global society.
The nuance is in the information ownership. There are those (including me) who feel that the government does not own the information it manages, it is just the caretaker. As a rule of thumb the idea is that information is owned by those it concerns. That would make me the fundamental owner of all information the government has about me. The government is the assigned caretaker. As the owner I would have the right to hear what information the institution has and to demand correction should the information be false etc.
This I believe is fundament under legislation like the freedom of information act and the EU Data Privacy regulation, on other similar legislation. Having said this I do not believe Osama Bin Laden should have the right to call the CIA and US Military and demand to know what these institutions know about him, his location, organisation, etc. So as usual there is no black and white here.
Still I the case of Wikileaks and the US Government I would find it defendable to claim that Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, etc. should be allowed to ask what information the US Government manages about them. Angela should be able to demand correction if she does not feel as “butch” as US diplomats claim she is. If Berlusconi can proof he is not “feckless, vain and ineffective” the US Government should correct their records. If only to ensure that these organisation stay on their toes regarding accuracy and necessity of information, wider access to the information used as the bases for international diplomacy and decision making would be admirable. However it is a tremendous step from giving access to information to those it concerns to publishing it on the internet for the whole world to read.
If we as society fail to see the distinction and decide that internet publication is OK then I guess the next thing to publish would be all criminal records from the different justice departments (including speeding tickets, parking violations and other minor stuff) and there are countries that allow internet exposure of serious criminal like rapists. So if we are still ok with that than I guess tax records could be next. Would you like it if your neighbour knew exactly what your financial situation is? I would not! Bottom line this would spell the end of all information privacy and I do not believe that a majority of society would consider that “right”.
So the boundary is somewhere in the middle and looking at the raging discussion it is far from clear. This is where I see the problem. If the boundaries between right and wrong are unclear individuals like Julian need to decide for themselves without guidance. Looking at his choices so far the fact that US diplomats have been caught with their pants down makes me smile. Not because it is the US but because diplomacy in my view is a very unclear world often beyond the control of those it affects (society as a whole). Power without clear accountability in my opinion is always something to be very careful with. If this action upsets the diplomatic world one might question their activities. But that is a different topic altogether.
I understand that the discussion is now about publishing a list of critical installations which makes me feel much more uneasy. The discussion about what is acceptable seems to revolve around the possible damage that might result from the information becoming publicly available. I find the other argument (about the motives of Assange and Wikileaks for starting the site in the first place) even more interesting.
Consider the following: If the Taliban had gained access to the material from the American Embassies they might have decided to publish it in exactly the same way Assange did but their motive would probably have been to upset relations between coalition members that form the UN forces in Afghanistan (something in the line of divide and conquer).
If Osama Bin Laden could have gained access to a list of installations considered critical by the US Government he might have decided to publish it on the Internet in the hope it might inspire some nutcase to do something foolish. The end-result of either of those actions could arguably be exactly the same as those from Assange but I would bet that there would be a lot less people applauding. So we should ask ourselves: Are “pure” motives a free-pass to do whatever the hell we please? If not I guess we as global society need to start thinking what use of information (on the internet) is “right” and what we feel is “wrong”.