by Barbara M. Jones, Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, ALA
Author’s note: The purpose of this short background piece is to inform American Library Association members of the current WikiLeaks conversation occurring in ALA discourse, and likely to be discussed during the January Midwinter Conference in San Diego. We welcome comments on this or any of the articles or opinions expressed here. Our aim is to provide as many perspectives to this complex issue as possible. Any opinions or framing of the WikiLeaks issue expressed in this document are mine alone.
What is WikiLeaks and How does it work?
WikiLeaks is a website and a self-described media outlet. As of Dec. 15, 2010, its URL is: http://www.wikileaks.ch/. The best way to ascertain what it is and how it works is to read the web site itself, understanding that it is the point of view of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder.
At the date of this writing (Dec. 22, 2010), the home page describes WikiLeaks as “a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important information to the public. . . We publish material of ethical, political, and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices.”
WikiLeaks’ domain name was registered on October 4, 2006 but the web site says it was “launched” in 2007 by Julian Paul Assange, 1971- , an Australian who began exploring the use of computers as portals as a teenager (before Web sites existed!). He began hacking into North American and European computer systems in the late 1980’s and by the early 1990’s became a person of interest to the Australian Federal Police. Authoritative biographical information can be found in Raffi Khatchadourian’s “No Secrets,” a thorough article from The New Yorker published June 7, 2010. Assange’s life history makes clear his passion (for better or worse) for revealing current and past events that might be hidden or ignored by regular media outlets or hidden by governments, corporations, or individuals.
WikiLeaks is maintained by hundreds of volunteers and financial donors worldwide and 3-5 full time employees with code names. Some supporters run “mirror sites.” Communication is transmitted by encrypted online chat services. Assange says that there are 20 servers around the world, on hundreds of domain names, making the system virtually unassailable. Information about the journalistic process—how to submit and how to receive information–and the means of maintaining confidentiality and authenticating sources can be found on the web site.
According to its web site it accepts submissions, but does not solicit them, through an anonymous encrypted drop box. Its researchers then check the stories for accuracy and then “leak” them through the same anonymous encrypted technology.
What is the Mission of WikiLeaks?
Here we enter controversial territory because some say that WikiLeaks’ stated mission and the outcome differ. The WikiLeaks web site bases the mission on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts the human right of expression and receipt of information regardless of frontiers. Assange’s biography makes it clear that even as a teenager he was interested in making information transparent for everyone, and, some would argue, regardless of the consequences. The web site goes on to explain the concept of “principled leaking,” (web site 3.2) necessary to fight government, individual, and corporate corruption. Assange cites the actions of Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers case as an example of why principled leaking is essential for good government. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Pentagon Papers case is online at the Cornell law site and other online sources. Commentators,including Todd Gltlin, differ on whether that parallel is accurate.
Ellsburg himself has publicly supported Wikileaks in this controversy. Ellsberg is slated to be a speaker at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans in June, 2011 (arranged well before the current WikiLeaks controversy).
WikiLeaks views itself as an intermediary to help whistleblowers, who can “drop” the info at WikiLeaks to protect themselves.
What is the History of WikiLeaks release of information?
The Wikipedia (no relation to WikiLeaks) article on WikiLeaks lists numerous examples of current events and information leaked to the general public. One of the most cited examples is the WikiLeaks releases on extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya, which led to several print media articles and the 2009 Amnesty International Human Rights Award in Reporting, in the New Media category. WikiLeaks had also been praised and used by a number of media sources and governments prior to its notoriety to be discussed later– based on the release of U.S. diplomatic cables in November/December, 2010.
Wikileaks had also been criticized prior to December, 2010. For example, Reporter Without Borders issued an open letter in August 2010 to Assange, asserting that some of his leaks in the U.S. war in Afghanistan had put people’s lives in danger because of poor screening before release of the information. Later Reporters Without Borders clarified their support for WikiLeaks, but argued that they still felt the need to clarify some journalistic issues.
What Led to the Current Notoriety of WikiLeaks? The Release of U.S. Diplomatic Cables
The release of U.S. diplomatic cables led to a flurry of news stories around the globe in late November and early December, 2010. On Nov. 28, 2010, WikiLeaks and several major global newspapers (including The New York Times), began publishing 220 of over 250,000 leaked “confidential” classified diplomatic cables (1966-2010) from 274 U.S. embassies around the world. While not classified “top secret,” these cables reveal diplomatic strategies and some potentially embarrassing attitudes and opinions of international leaders. Some argue that the cables contain potentially life-threatening information.
The response was quick. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that WikiLeaks is under criminal investigation and that there could be prosecutions of individuals for leaking classified documents.
Assange’s current legal problems are many and are enumerated in this Washington Post news article.
U.S. policymakers have been both critical and supportive of WikiLeaks’ action. Some immediately decried the release of the documents. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on record immediately, decrying the illegal publication of classified documents from government computers, and defending the need for a “confidential space” for diplomatic conversations to be conducted. Further, she noted that people’s lives could be endangered by disclosures.
Most reactions, which can be accessed through media sites, reflect the myriad of opinions regarding where the balance should lie between government transparency and the people’s right to know, versus the needs of national security and the people’s need to be protected. Reactions include:
- that WikiLeaks is a terrorist organization;
- that the U.S. government is hypocritical ;
- that prosecution of Assange is endangering press freedom and the First Amendment;
- that the real culprits are faulty U.S. computer security and overclassification of government documents;
- that the WikiLeaks release is a violation of essential diplomatic protocol.
A House Judiciary hearing was held on December 16 with several constitutional experts, and the consensus there was that classification of U.S. documents needs to be examined. The transcript and video are online.
PayPal, which handled donations to WikiLeaks, dropped their service to WikiLeaks in December, concerned about the U.S. government allegations of the funding of “illegal activity,” and legal issues are pending between Pay Pal and WikiLeaks. When Visa Europe similarly suspended payments to WIkiLeaks on December 7, the online organization called Anonymous launched a Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on the Visa web site and brought it down.
It is clear that at the time of writing this (Dec. 22), there are dozens of unresolved legal and political issues surrounding the Wikileaks release of documents and broader issues as well.
How Might the WikiLeaks Controversy Relate to the American Library Association and to Libraries?
- First Amendment protection for whistleblowers, journalists, and the press.
- Functioning of an open government in a democracy.
- Appropriate classification of government documents.
- The initial Library of Congress blocking of the WikiLeaks web site on its terminals for users without the appropriate security clearance. (At the date of this writing, it appears that the Library of Congress has unblocked the WikiLeaks site.)
- The Internet in the 21st century library. Do libraries have an obligation to make Wikileaks type of information available to their users? Should this be treated like any other information relevant to library user needs?
Finally, one might argue that the WikiLeaks controversy covers new ground or ground in which ALA might need new research and policy formulation: that of an information environment in which the electronic public forum can become a battleground where the usual rules of public discourse don’t apply. Hackers have extremely sophisticated means of enabling people to release information anonymously and also punishing companies or governments that try to suppress that information through such means as “denial of service” attacks. In an era when government and private information from individuals and companies will be made public increasingly through unauthorized means, what should the role of libraries be toward making this information accessible to its users or denying users? What should the policy be?