Quis custodiet Wikileaks?

Thanks to yesterday’s post about Wikileaks, the BBC World Service invited me to their program “World Have Your Say“. If you are bored, you can find the program here as a podcast. I’m on after 30 minutes or so (note to self: eloquence is not your forte, stick to writing).

I had prepared some notes of potential legal issues that might arise, but as things go in live broadcast conducted in debate style, there was not a lot of time to make any lenghty interventions. And as I have learned the hard way, media does not lend itself to lengthy and nuanced legal arguments.

There has been one thing that has continued to pester me since I wrote about Wikileaks yesterday, and it was the only substantive point I managed to make in the BBC program. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?

Wikileaks has managed to accumulate a lot of power in its short life. During the Trafigura scandal, Wikileaks managed to circumvent a super injunction against the press. Wikileaks was at the heart of the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia, which resulted in the so-called Climategate. Leaked documents could topple governments, ruin careers, change perceptions, even perhaps instigate conflict and start wars.

That is a lot of power, and as Spider-man teaches us, with great power comes great responsibility.

Wikileaks is currently exercising editorial control over what is released. Who makes the decisions? What is the governance structure of this important website? Is there a community that acts with only freedom of expression as its sole guiding light? How can we be assured that there is adequate consideration of the consequences of its actions?

So far, I believe that Wikileaks has been acting correctly in most instances, although I disagree with releasing the UEA emails, because there was little context. However, I respect the decision. Editorial control is a dangerous tool. This both increases their legal liability, and also opens them up to enforcement.  But most importantly, the editorial function they undertake means that Wikileaks is now more of a player in world politics, it has tremendous power to release some information, and maybe withhold it as well. Currently we only have their assurances that they are working correctly.

Having said that, I would rather live in a world that has Wkileaks, than live in one that does not.

However, Wikileaks should consider seriously its power.

Comments 2

  1. I completely agree and these are substantive issues that will become more pertinent as the extent to which they have limits to leaking become apparent (i.e. will they release personal communications? covert recordings?). It is interesting that someone leaked their own private emails internal to wikileaks at one point – to be fair to them they didn't block them…

    There are obviously normative values being applied here of which we are not fully aware and the use of pseudonyms and the turn towards secret meetings is not a good direction for a 'sunlight' organisation IMHO. This also leaves them open to infiltration by security services and state suppression (as E. P. Thompson shows us).

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