Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Misguided Ruling to Censor WikiLeaks...

The Associated Press reported yesterday that a federal judge has ordered the website to be shut down for posting internal documents that exposed corruption in a bank from the Cayman Islands. Now a fierce free speech debate is ensuing over the censorship of the website.

WikiLeaks is a website dedicated to exposing corruption by providing a public forum for whistle-blowing. Because it relies on wiki-based software, anyone with internet access can post material on the site. The site claims to have posted 1.2 million leaked government and corporate documents that it says expose unethical behavior.

What makes this case stick out is that the federal judge didn't simply order the removal of the disputed materials, but the shutting down of the entire WikiLeaks website. "This is akin to seizing all the copies of the New York Times, locking the doors and ordering the landlords not to let anyone back in the building," said Julie Turner, a Palo Alto Internet attorney.

The controversy is really about the constitutional principle known as "prior restraint". Material has been ordered taken down from websites before if it was deemed harmful, defamatory, or in violation of local laws. So nobody is arguing that all possible material on the internet is protected by free speech. The problem is that by ordering the shutting down of the entire website, the government has effectively ordered the censorship of the entire forum. In legal circles, this is prior restraint - the censoring of future publications before they're created - and, at least in the United States, it is illegal.

The judge was deeply misguided in issuing the shut-down order, and the ruling is likely to be overturned in an appeals court. As was also the case with the Doom9 - Encryption Key episode, what this judge and others fail to understand is that not only is censorship online virtually impossible, it is also often completely counter-productive. The Global Integrity Commons correctly notes that " went offline, but WikiLeaks mirror sites hosted overseas hold the same content, and the original site is still up and running from Sweden ( without its easier-to-type URL". Now, in reaction to the censorship ruling, the blogosphere is abuzz with this news headline, and thus is bringing enormous attention to the case (not to mention re-publishing its wannabe-censored details all over the internet). "As it turns out, shutting down WikiLeaks-the-website has focused our attention on WikiLeaks-the-idea, which is spreading at the speed of light."


At 11:11 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

In what must be a first, both Bill O'Reilly and the New York Times agree with my point:

"The lawsuit appears to have backfired, bringing worldwide publicity to the documents."

"That was akin to shutting down a newspaper because of objections to one article."

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Update: Judge Allows WikiLeaks to Resume U.S. Operations.


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