Wikileaks: Freedom of information versus information privacy

The Wikileaks furoreinvolves fundamental issues concerning information ownership, information privacy, freedom of information, the way we handle information on the Internet and how IT professionals should respond.

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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.

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