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PdFLeaks: Journalism, Free Speech, DDOS and Internet Freedom [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, December 12 2010

Yesterday's symposium on Wikileaks and internet freedom was like a great jazz concert. We got an all-star array of great musicians who know how to play from a score that is being written in real-time; we heard many great solos, some improvised and some carefully planned in advance; and at times we even heard the ensemble start to gel like a well-rehearsed band. There were discordant notes too, and maybe not enough of them given how hard the music really is.

I highly recommend replaying the event (it's archived here in two parts) and paying close attention to what each speaker said; when you're listening in real-time and trying to also ingest and participate in the backchannel conversation on Twitter (or IRL, which made a quiet but great resurgence yesterday) it becomes hard to take it all in. Now, hopefully, there will be a continuation of the conversation online, here and on other blogs.

A few thoughts to help move that ball forward. For starters: A friend of mine and Andrew's who attended the event, who has deep experience in the world of journalism, raised three questions in an email that I thought worth sharing, along with my preliminary responses.

1. Is what WikiLeaks has done journalism, and thus entitled to protection?
Yes, in my humble opinion, what Wikileaks is doing is journalism. They are editing the raw leaks and working with partners who are adding context. What is innovative about what they're doing is they're offering sources a new way of exposing inside information to public view. That is important and needs to be protected. At the same time, as Carne Ross said eloquently yesterday, "When you have information you have power, and with power comes responsibility." For the health of an open society, we definitely want a Wikileaks that is more transparent and accountable to the public than the one we have now. However, given how sovereign states--especially so-called "great powers" who want to have "spheres of influence" and maintain "ways of life" that are unsustainable--respond to fundamental threats to their monopoly on information, a Wikileaks can't be fully transparent if it wants to survive. In any event, as Mark Pesce brilliantly argued, it's not likely that we're going to get a "responsible" Wikileaks, and far more likely that something far more disruptive to the current order--a distributed and unstoppable system for spreading information--is what is coming next.

2. Does the DDOS response of Anonymous et al constitute vengeful anarchic lawlessness – or is it understandable civil disobedience?
Personally, I believe nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon and generally support people who try to practice it. But I am not sure that it is at all wise to go try to defend free speech by suppressing other people's speech, which is what a DDOS attack does to the target. I think I agree with Bob Wyman (of Google, though he didn't mention that about himself) who spoke from the audience and said that anything that attacks the network should be opposed. A sit-in at the doors of the New York Times doesn't prevent the Times from publishing online, but a DDOS attack would. People who don't like Amazon or Mastercard or Paypal for what they did to Wikileaks should organize boycotts, or sit-in at their corporate headquarters. UPDATED: (after reading Deanna Zandt's longer nuanced discussion of this issue.) Or make a donation to Wikileaks, as I did last week to protest the crackdown on them. (You may to hunt around for an online path, but they're there. Or mail a check!)

3. Is it sensible to trust companies to determine who is permitted to publish on the Internet?
In a word, no. Perhaps the government made a mistake when it privatized the internet backbone. On the other hand, we also seem to have a problem with government allowing free speech online too! (In that respect, the most worrisome thing about the events of the past week is discovering that when push comes to shove, the US government is prepared to act like other repressive societies in trying to choke access to information online that it doesn't want people to have.) But the truth is that the distributed nature of private online services today has, so far, protected Wikileaks' freedom of speech. So perhaps rather than expecting particular companies to be courageous, what we need to worry about more is that there will always be enough alternative choices available that no one can effectively be suppressed.

More to come...