Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Taking a WikiLeak

I am fed up with otherwise responsible blogs and Internet news sites making a hero out of WikiLeaks. They are nothing more than irresponsible gossipers. What they do is is unethical, perhaps even illegal.
Let’s get three points out of the way first. One, while I think of myself as a a moderate, others would disagree. Yes, I’ve been called the “L” word. That’s Liberal for those of you who watch too much Showtime. I am a firm believer in the freedoms ensconced in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. So, this is not some neo-con, constitutional revisionist screed. Second, I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility. This is a core ethical principle. If you take a moral stand on something you have to take the consequences of that stand. All the great moral leaders have done this (think Gandhi or Martin Luther King). Finally, if you plan to do something that might be harmful to people, there had better be a great good. Otherwise, it’s just harm.
These last two points are central if you are to be a protester or whistle-blower. You have to accept that some bad things will happen to you. You could lose your job. You might get arrested. You might get beaten up. You might get killed. These are the risks that an agent of social change takes. Just ask Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent a big chunk of her adult life under house arrest for protesting the military government of Myanmar (previously Burma).
The second major aspect of legitimate protest is that its goal is something more than money or even individual good. There needs to be a greater good involved. You protest to restore or establish democracy, stop government abuses, end an unjust war, or make sure that schools teach all children equally. The goal of embarrassing a government or corporation through protest is not simply to embarrass them. Getting Union Carbide to take responsibility for the Bhopal disaster is a valid reason to take them into the court of public opinion. Obtaining equal civil rights for all of our citizens is a reason to break the law and ride at the front of the bus. Tweaking the government or a company just because you can is not reason enough to put people (including yourself) in danger or to subject them to ridicule.
And there lies my problem with WikiLeaks. They have been transformed into folk heroes for releasing classified documents from U.S. Embassies around the world. Some of what was said was indeed embarrassing. They depict the honest (as opposed to public) opinions of diplomats throughout the world. That communication back to Washington is part of their jobs. They need to let the State Department, intelligence agencies, and the President know what is really going on even when to say so publicly would be bad for diplomacy.
Determining whether releasing these documents is illegal is something I’ll leave up to the lawyers. What I am certain of, is that it is unethical. There is no greater good here. Do they hope to create a change in US foreign policy by embarrassing the United States government? If so, what policy? By distributing a broad array of documents, as opposed to a targeted set, it is unclear what policy they would want different. That dilution of purpose alone makes this ineffectual as an method for change. So, I don’t believe policy change is the goal. What I do believe WikiLeaks’ goal to be is simple publicity. Grandstanding. Poke the government in the eye and prove that you are important and powerful.
Which brings me to back my first criteria for ethical protest – taking responsibility. Has the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, stood up and said “I’ll go to jail to protect our right to know?” Nope. All we hear is whining about how they have sustained DDOS attacks or how Amazon doesn’t want to sully their servers with their bile. He has even avoided the European Arrest Warrant issued in the wake of  accusations of rape and sexual harassment in Sweden. So much for taking responsibility.
What is sad is that WikiLeaks has done good in the past by acting in accordance with basic ethical principles. Yes, their releases on the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were damaging to the reputation of the U.S. military but they served a higher purpose. They exposed the types of abuses by our forces that can eat away at the heart of military units. It is okay to expose random killings of civilians, covered up friendly fire incidents, or other unethical conduct by military leaders. That’s how we keep our professional military from becoming brutal conquerors. That’s how we hold military leaders accountable to their own soldiers and the nation as whole. It’s what the military themselves should have done. In the end, it’s good for the military to have the bad apples exposed. It’s as if the folks at WikiLeaks have gotten so caught up in their own celebrity that they forgot what their original mission was.
And for those WikiLeaks apologists who talk about freedom of the press and speech, learn what that means. The founders of this great country knew that these were not absolute rights. They are meant to be exercised responsibly. That’s why we have valid defamation and libel laws. It’s why you can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater. Again, even if what they did was legal, that doesn’t make it right.
This latest round of exposés doesn’t meet the most basic criteria for ethical protest. It only hurts but does not help. Embarrassment for the sake of itself is a vice not a virtue. This is nothing less than the worst form of internet-based tabloid journalism. So, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange should stop whining that people are angry with them. They should stop complaining that they might be in legal trouble. It’s what happens when you put money ahead of ethics. Take you medicine and learn from it.


Chris said...

Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful and provocative post. I disagree with a lot of it and offer a few reasons here.

The UK government gave us UK citizens the Chilcot Enquiry to investigate the Iraq war. Thanks to Wikileaks we now know that the previous Gordon Brown administration secretly hobbled this enquiry's efforts by denying it access to certain documents relating to US issues.

We also know other instances where the UK government of the time lied to us.

Simply put I want to know what my government is up to and not be lied to as it abuses its power. Wikileaks helps prevent that.

The video of a US helicopter firing on Iraqi civilians would never have seen the light of day if it were not for Wikileaks. There was public, visual, undeniable proof that your government had been prosecuting the war in Iraq in grossly abusive ways.

There are Gulf State rulers who we now know are hypocrites and liars because of Wikileaks. Good! I want to know these things.

Wikileaks is what it is and IMHO does a great service overall by exposing hypocritical, lying and abusive actions by governments and corporations. That is a greater good in your terms - at least that's what I would argue.

Sure there have been mistakes, energetically criticised and I daresay hyped up by people who have been shown to support abusive and lying actions by the government and military organisation of which they are part. They are hardly neutral commentators. That is not sufficient in my book to condemn Wikileaks.

Chris Mellor
Storage writer for The Register but making this comment as an independent observer.

Tom Petrocelli said...

Thanks Chris. Great comment.
What worries me is what they will become. When they do things just for the publicity is dilutes the good they do. What will people remember? That they helped expose the Tillamn friendly fire cover up or that they released a bunch of stuff out of context that served no purpose other than to make diplomats look foolish. I fear the latter.
This behavior hurts rather than help democracy. Sigh...
I don't condemn WikiLeaks as a whole, just their current behavior. They need to stand up to the same scrutiny they open others up to.

_philipclark said...

It does seem questionable to criticize a government for actions such as recording private citizens' conversations, and then steal private conversations and distribute them to prove a point...