Posted by: Christian Verstraete | December 8, 2010

Wikileaks, the First Amendment and the Internet

Let me start with a disclaimer. In no way do I support Wikileaks, and the objective of this blog entry is NOT to judge or talk about Wikileaks. However, this beind said, I have seen a couple actions taking place over the last couple weeks that, in my mind, put the functioning of the Internet in danger. That’s what I want to talk about.

The First Amendment of the United States sais: ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In a nutshell, it guarantees freedom of speech. Now, you can argue that the documents shared by Wikileaks are stolen, so that releasing them is not part of freedom of speech. OK, you have a point, but shouldn’t we then go after the people who did the stealing rather than after the ones who publish?

Secondly, because of the controversial nature of the documents, Amazon shuts down Wikileaks account, becoming a judge of the relevance of the material. Obviously, in a slick marketing message Amazon explains its move by arguing its terms of service. Would be interesting to know since when those terms were in there. Amazon judges that 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. Again this is a judgement. In my mind that is what courts are for and I do not believe individuals or companies should replace courts.

Beyond this particular fact, Amazon allows itself the rights to discontinue the service of any company that in Amazon’s feeling publishes content that causes injury to any person or entity. Will Amazon discontinue the service of any company that sells weapons or accessories, publishes riffle manuals etc. By the way, they sell weapon accessories themselves as this riffle scope shows. But obviously, that will never put anybody in danger, isn’t it?

The second issue is related to the blocking of the site name by the US based domain name server ( I have the same arguments here. To my knowledge, Wikileaks has not been condemned as a terrorist organization, so why should it suddenly be blocked without any justice intervention? Can the US unilaterally decide who is allowed to be visible on the internet and who not? By the way at least the mirror site followed suit quickly.

Beyond this specific case, there is a fundamental issue that appears. As Knowledge@Wharton writes”, “The WikiLeaks Battle: Should Information be Shared or Censored?”, the real question is about what data to share on the internet. This is the first clash between internet freeflow and civil responsibility.  The Internet starts from a concept of trust. It was developed by universities to facilitate collaboration. Today it is way beyond what it was developed for and there is an urgent need to rethink the fundamental principles of the net. Data can easily be routed elsewhere, as shown with the Chinese example of earlier this year, unilateral decisions to block access can be taken etc. I am not even speaking about the hacking and denial of service attacks. The Internet is no longer very pretty, isn’t it?

Your liberty starts where mine ends, but where is that boundary really?

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