The controversy over Wikileaks has been raging for a few years now, and has reached a scale that not only involves its own publications but prompts a debate on how information should be regulated on the internet. Between freedom of the press and lawless transparency, Wikileaks crystallizes the paradox of the information age. Or is it just a fool’s game?
There is no denying that drama has become a great part of the Wikileaks’ communication, especially through its notorious leader Julian Assange. Hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after his extradition to Sweden was decided by the court, the Australian activist has made great effort to stage his persecution by the Swedish and U.S. government. Speaking from his balcony on 21 December he ensured a much reduced crowd that he had “over one million documents being prepared to be released, documents that affect every country in the world.” Acting like a political refugee, Julian Assange may have forgotten that he is wanted on sexual assault charges that have nothing to do with Wikileaks. Indeed, the United States have not filed any case against him yet, and the menace of an extradition remains but an allegation for now. The U.S. government surely is raging mad after Wikileaks revealed secret cables from the War in Afghanistan. However, sentencing Julian Assange to death hardly seems a solution to their problem. The personality of the Wikileaks leader, contrary to what he might think, is negligible compared to the issues his organization has raised.
Reactions from the front
The 2010 publication of the Afghan War Diaries on Wikileaks, remains one of its most criticized actions. The report revealed the killings of Afghan civilians as well as US concerns that Pakistan was helping the Taliban. The leak was immediately condemned by the American Government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring: “It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.” Revealing the names of people that helped the coalition in Afghanistan also raised strong criticism from Human Rights Groups which had previously been supportive of Wikileaks : . “It would not be hard for the Taliban and other armed groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people for targeting in deadly revenge attacks,” Reporters Without Borders wrote, in an open letter to Julian Assange. On the other hand, some have praised Wikileaks defense of information rights, such as one member of the Finnish Parliament, Annika Lapintie (Left Alliance), who proposed a Nobel Prize for WikiLeaks. At the heart of their dispute, the extent to which the right of information should go. On this topic, the German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière made an insightful comment. He was not so scared by the leaks themselves that he described as irritating but really not a threat to Germany. However, he defended a government’s right to hold secret information by insisting “Governments also have to be able to communicate confidentially. Confidentiality and transparency are not mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin.”
The internet bomb impact
With Wikileaks, hacking and the instantly-available character of information, the internet has clearly had an enormous impact on the information circulation. The leaking of some information has revealed government misconduct and enabled citizens against the arbitrary power that governments can sometimes grant themselves. Meanwhile, one also has to ask what the long-term consequences will be: Are governments going to tighten their freedom of speech policy, or restrain the press as a result? The effect of Wikileaks would then be the opposite of what this laudable cause initially intended. In effect, it could become harder to protect people who disclose classified information. While they have an important role to play as a counter-power, it should be made clear what kind of information release is considered useful for the community and does not bring chaos on the ground. Nevertheless, it seems hardly possible for governments, may they be the most powerful, to counter hackers all over the world and completely lock the internet. Once the machine has started, there is no sailing backwards.
Is transparency irresponsible?
If the internet has made it possible for anyone to publish virtually anything without taking responsibility for it, the question of regulation must be asked all the same. For instance, heinous racist tweets have been widely criticized as illegal in France, but no law can be enforced on Twitter. Moreover, the problems of libel and verification of the information seem all the more important on the internet and have become a great responsibility for journalists today. However, the internet has been a great way to fight censorship around the world, through organizations like We Fight Censorship, that help journalists protect themselves and their work in countries where the freedom of speech is not an accepted right. Receiving and publishing classified information, like Wikileaks did, is something that has always been part of journalism. It is taking a whole new dimension with the internet though. The advent of data journalism is also opening endless possibilities and giving citizens access to information that had remained the domain of experts so far. While endless possibilities are opening out in front of us, the utopia of transparency remains exhilarating. However, an anarchic dystopia is looming and no one has found a way to counteract it yet. It will probably be decades before we can fully measure the impact of the information age, but the headache of regulation has already started.