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Wikileaks: The internet ideal triumphs

By Index on Censorship / 6 December, 2010


As hundreds of mirror sites circumvent attempts at internet censorship of the Cablegate documents, Wikileaks journalist James Ball calls on the US to remember its principles on internet freedom

If Wikileaks were to disappear permanently from the internet today, tomorrow’s embassy cables stories would still appear.

Not that removing Wikileaks would prove straightforward: though the main site has had to move its servers after Amazon withdrew hosting, and change its web address after EveryDNS cancelled Wikileaks’ account, it is still up and running.

Even on Wednesday, the day the site was most disrupted, Cablegate received 54m hits, from at least 3.6m unique individuals. Duplicate copies of Wikileaks are now loaded hundreds of different servers worldwide. Even PayPal’s closure of Wikileaks’ account has so far proved little more than an annoyance.

But even these could all vanish tomorrow, thanks to an even more traditional fallback: old media. The New York Times, Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais are all running Wikileaks material.

All shared the same editorial judgement as Wikileaks having seen the material: they judged it in the public interest and chose to run it. At this point, these sites are running the same cables as Wikileaks. They have contributed to the redactions.

The Guardian website, at the time of writing, actually contains more US material than Wikileaks’ own. None have faced the political or technical backlash of the main Wikileaks site, yet all would have to be taken offline to bury the Embassy Cables story.

Yet the ineffectiveness of the censorship efforts from the US Government, Senator Joe Lieberman and others does not detract from their troubling nature.

In a sense, attempts by Lieberman and the French government to prevent web hosts providing servers to Wikileaks are the least problematic issue — in the print press era, printers and distributors were regularly targeted with lawsuits when governments or private individuals sought to prevent stories getting out.

Targeting web hosts is merely the modern take on an old trick; and one which doesn’t seem to work nearly so well in the web era. Controversial publications which lack Wikileaks’ audience and resilience, on the other hand, may be anxiously watching current developments.

What is newer — and disturbing — is attempts by governments to prevent millions of their citizens from reading this material. America’s 19m federal government employees have been told not to read the cables material — or any publication containing them. Agencies have added virtually every mainstream news outlet to web filters and blocks, a move reminiscent of China’s Great Firewall.

Students at Columbia University have been advised not to comment on the cables if they might want a government job. And a US data visualisation company, Tableau, has even retracted derivative works based on the Wikileaks stories, without receiving a single specific request to do so.

The US government’s efforts to stop this story show both a distressing lack of commitment to the core internet principles of transparency and neutrality, and also a fundamental lack of understanding of its infrastructure.

Recent events should not disturb only journalists or campaigners – based on their recent public comments, it should prove a cause for concern for a pair of prominent Americans, too.

The first strident voice, speaking at a town hall meeting in China said:

“The more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves.

He concluded,

“I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free internet — or unrestricted internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged,”

A second speaker called, in January this yea said:

“Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand…This needs to be part of our national brand. I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles”

The identities of these two radical firebrands? None other than President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

I couldn’t agree with them more.

James Ball is an investigative journalist currently working with Wikileaks

READ MORE ON WIKILEAKS

Jillian C York: Wikileaks and the hazards of “intermediary censorship”
Plus Wikileaks and State Department correspondence

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