Wikileaks, having recently released details of hundreds of thousands of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables, has been tossed into a maelstrom of troubles over the past week. Amazon, which had hosted the web site, terminated that arrangement, reportedly under pressure from the U.S. government. Its DNS registrar, EveryDNS.net, pulled the Wikileaks domain out of the domain name service, prompting them to move to a Swiss domain name. PayPal has blocked donations to Wikileaks by
permanently restricting their account, saying that the
illegal activity that Wikileaks engages in violates PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy. And on top of all of that, founder Julian Assange is now an international fugitive, as Interpol has backed a Swedish warrant for his arrest (the Swedish charges are unrelated to Wikileaks activities, though Mr Assange says they are yet another attempt to shut Wikileaks down).
I have a mixed opinion of the matter of releasing the confidential documents, as well as about the other things Wikileaks has released in the past.
I’ve worked with classified, proprietary, personal, and otherwise confidential material often during my career, and I well understand that some information should be kept confidential. Even in cases where openness and public scrutiny are important, there’s value in being circumspect about some things. Personnel matters, obviously, fall into this category. Plans often need be kept quiet until they’re carried out. Trade secrets and other confidential company information should be distributed only as there be need to know — and government agencies can have
confidential company information as well. We often don’t reveal sources, to avoid discouraging those and future sources from coming forward. The fact that even Wikileaks doesn’t disclose the identities of the leakers is testament enough to that.
We have to balance the benefit that comes from the disclosure of information against the damage caused by that disclosure. Sometimes, it’s easy to see where the balance lies. If we disclose payoffs to a government official that have been feeding a program that serves only to line the pockets of a few, the benefit is clear, and the damage is only to those involved in the corruption. On the other side, if we expose a covert agent, citing a public
right to know, there might be no tangible benefit and we may risk the life of the agent and many of his associates.
Sometimes, the determination isn’t as straightforward. With the diplomatic cables, it’s likely that they fell wildly on each side of the balancing point, with many landing too close to it to judge easily.
Whistle blowing is an important part of the checks against corruption and other forms of abuse, and it’s important for us to have a way for people to publicize the sorts of things that need to have light shone on them. At the same time, though, not everything should be so illuminated. The set of diplomatic cables is one case where discretion would have been better. The problem with an arrangement such as Wikileaks is that there’s no one sifting through the items in the set and making intelligent choices about which ones to release and which ones to hold back, at least for now.
On the other hand, while I understand the desire to shut Wikileaks down as a result of this, that heavy-handed approach isn’t going to be effective, and probably isn’t the right way to go about it. It would be better to try to establish some sort of liaison that looks for voluntary discretion. Here, too, we have to find that same balance: the benefit of shutting down a system that exposes confidential information indiscriminately, against the damage done by removing a mechanism for safely exposing waste and corruption.