Wikileaks and the dream of the open web

In case you have not seen it yet, Wikileaks has released a video of an American helicopter crew opening fire on a group of men in Iraq, and later firing on a van that was trying to retrieve the wounded. I have been debating with myself whether to embed the video here. It is seriously disturbing, and I am concerned about potentially tasteless juxtaposition between the seriousness of the subject matter and the light-hearted nature of this blog, but I have decided that this is important enough that it requires all of the promotion it can get.

Warning, this is a very disturbing video.

There is no need to mention the details of the video, it speaks for itself. No need to talk about the goods and evils of the invasion of Iraq, the rules of engagement, or the horror of war. The video speaks for itself.

However, there are various important cyberlaw element to this story, namely the legal nature and ethical importance of Wikileaks. In their own words, “The Sunshine Press (WikiLeaks) is an non-profit organization funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public.” The beauty and power of the site is that it allows the anonymous deposit of documents from whistle-blowers who may want to make public an important story that they would otherwise have to keep secret.

Wikileaks used to be organised in a manner similar to Wikipedia, where every user was able to upload files, but this allowed all sorts of inane material to be uploaded, and also permitted rumours and unfounded accusations against innocents to spread. So the site is now moderated to allow only “classified, censored or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic¬† or ethical significance”. The system itself is setup so that the files can be uploaded via an encrypted connection, and the networks operates in distributed fashion using technologies from Tor, Freenet and PGP. The upoloader sends the file in encryped secure fashion using PGP, has their IP address masked via Tor, and then the files is shared and distributed via Freenet.

There is no doubt that Wikileaks is very much in the fringes of legality in almost every jurisdiction. Freedom of speech was never meant to be unlimited, and Wikileaks exposes official documents and censored material whose release unambiguously breaks the law at least in the source’s jurisdictions. The system itself is distributed, so it is very difficult to shut down as there is no central hub that stores all of the data. However, the fact that Wikileaks exercises editorial oversight over the material that eventually gets published is in itself its biggest legal weakness, as those who fund it, support it and run it are the weakest links in an otherwise impressively resilient chain.

Wikileaks is important. Does it infringe the law? Possibly, but that is the point, and it is one of the reasons why it must be supported. We need a global website that exposes important information of an ethical nature, a site that treads where the mainstream media cannot go. If the coverage of the Iraq video is any indication, it also treads where mainstream media refuses to go. To me this story exemplifies one of the reasons why mainstream media, and particularly the printed press, has become almost irrelevant in the age of online content. There was a time where newspapers would have killed to be the first to publish a scoop of such monumental proportions, yet today’s headlines are more preoccupied with Tiger Woods and celebrity gossip. It is almost as if all depth has moved online, and the newspapers are left to cover all of the fluff that does not matter. The iPad will not fix this fundamental shift, people are hungry for real information, and they ain’t getting it in the traditional media sources.

Lastly, the Pentagon has been pursuing Wikileaks, as it has now become evident that it has become a matter of U.S. national security. In danger of making a crass political point, you have to wonder about all of the hot air coming out of the State Department about Internet freedoms. It seems like Internet liberty only works when it is being used to weaken and destabilise enemy countries, such as Iran and China. Yes, Ms Clinton wants governments to open the Web and let information flow! Unless it is U.S. information that is. Then Internet freedoms are a threat, and must be curbed.

I have donated to Wikileaks. I urge you to do the same.