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Yochai Benkler: "Every journalist should shudder...that Amazon took Wikileaks off its servers."

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, December 3 2010

Last night, at a panel discussion at the Columbia Journalism School on media policy, Harvard University professor Yochai Benkler, made a series of critical points about the role of online media watchdogs. As his text, he took the current Wikileaks "Cablegate" disclosures and the recent episode of media misinformation around President Obama's alleged $200 million-a-day trip to India.

First, he pointed out that traditional news media were hardly the best guarantors of independent journalism, noting that The New York Times editor Bill Keller has admitted, proudly, that everything his paper is publishing from Wikileaks is being vetted first by the government. "The next Daniel Ellsberg will not risk their career and liberty by going to the New York Times," Benkler declared.

Second, he lauded the role of online independent media. Noting that every news organization in the world is covering the Wikileaks revelations this week, he said, "The public watchdog function will increasingly come from the net, and the mainstream media will report on it as a fait accompli." He added, "Every journalist in the room should shudder at the news that Amazon took Wikileaks off its servers."

Finally, Benkler argued that the internet shouldn't be blamed for the spread of misinformation, as much as the broadcast media. Using Thomas Friedman's recent column on the India-Obama brouhaha as a foil, he noted that it was sites like Factcheck.org and Snopes.com that were immediately on top of correcting Rep. Michele Bachman's ridiculous claims about the cost of Obama's trip. "The Internet is setting the agenda, broadcast media just provides amplification," Benkler commented.

These are perilous times for online freedom, with political and commercial interests moving seemingly in tandem to choke off the open and generative nature of the internet. Threats are coming from "national security" actors seeking new powers to monitor and control online communications; from political players seeking to intimidate various voices online; from opportunistic attorneys general playing for headlines by bashing online community sites; from pipeline owners seeking to lock in artificially high profits by throttling online communications; and also from online commercial platforms that take a narrow and unreliable view of their role as providers of a public forum. Benkler's comments offer a refreshing corrective; here's to hearing more from him on these topics!

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