Follow us on

The irony of wikileaks

by Dr Simon Longstaff
25 February 2010
The publication of a mass of leaked diplomatic cables by the organisation founded by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, has prompted an extraordinary response from critics and supporters alike. Simon Longstaff is disturbed by a lack of analysis on all sides, and asks what WikiLeaks means for the use of other ‘leaked’ information.

A number of his critics have labelled WikiLeaks’ conduct as “morally reprehensible” or claimed that the organisation has acted illegally. In almost all cases, no attempt has been made to distinguish between the actions of WikiLeaks and those of Julian Assange – an approach that should be noted by editors and publishers, of whatever kind, the world over.

Whether or not either WikiLeaks or Assange have broken any laws is for others to decide. I would simply comment that it would be fundamentally wrong for Australians, however lofty their position, to abandon their practical allegiance to the presumption of innocence. And it would also be wrong for Assange, an Australian citizen, to be abandoned by the Government of his country – no matter what outrage his conduct or that of WikiLeaks might have occurred at home or abroad. It seems unlikely that Assange has broken any Australian law – but even if he has, it would be quite shameful for him not to be afforded the full weight of Australian official support that he is due to receive as a citizen. The memory of David Hicks being offered up to the Americans should be enough to prevent the Australian Government from abandoning Julian Assange.

It is evident that some people have absolute clarity about the ethical issues arising from WikiLeaks’ actions. Some people are certain that WikiLeaks and Assange are ethically justified. Others are equally sure that what has been done is ethically indefensible. What has often been missing from debate is the analysis that has given rise to these conclusions.

First, there are complex ethical issues that need to be disentangled and carefully assessed. For example, are the critics of WikiLeaks claiming that it is morally reprehensible for any person or organisation to make use of any information that it was never intended that they receive? Or are they saying that it is only specific types of information that should not be used if ‘leaked’? Or are they saying that some people are entitled to use leaked information while others, such as WikiLeaks, are not? One could drill down much further with such questions – seeking to understand the difference (if any) between using the information that has been stolen as opposed to information that has been lost ... and so on.

Second, it is important for those taking a position (for or against) in this matter to identify and explain any apparent inconsistency in their approach. For example, can they explain why they (or others) should be allowed to do what they would not allow WikiLeaks to do? If such inconsistencies are either not noticed or not explained, then charges of hypocrisy or insincerity may weaken their position.

Let us consider the first range of issues. As a rule, most people would agree that it is wrong to use the property of other people without their permission. This is so even if the property has not been dishonestly removed from the owner. For example, imagine seeing a $50 note slip from the pocket of an old man walking ahead of you. Although you do not really need the money, you could pick it up and keep it without anyone noticing. It might count as an unexpected ‘windfall’. However, the money is clearly not your property – and it has been lost by the man through no fault of his own. Furthermore, you could return it to the man with little effort on your part. In these circumstances, the ‘default’ position should be to return the money to its rightful owner. It is often surprising to note the number of people who agree that the lost money should be returned yet who would readily exploit a ‘windfall’ in the form of ‘lost’ information. For example, it is quite common for people to argue in commercial and political circles that they should be entitled to exploit (for their own advantage) information that has been ‘lost’ by their opponents. This is despite the fact that the information is clearly not their own and (in many cases) has been lost through no fault of those who own the information. When pressed, people often struggle to explain why they would return the money but keep the information. Where an explanation is offered, it usually involves one or more of the following elements: the people losing the information should have been more careful, ‘they would do the same thing to me’, the ‘rules of this particular game’ allow this, ‘they’ had no right to keep the information confidential or ‘we may use this information for the greater good’.

It is this last reason that is used to invoke the greatest sense of legitimacy. Too often it is the journalist’s or publisher’s or politician’s or party’s interest that is really being advanced – cloaked in the vestments of the public interest (which needs to be distinguished from ‘what the public is interested in’).

The people at WikiLeaks must have been through an exercise of the kind outlined above, to justify their use of information that clearly belongs to someone else and was never intended for them to see or use. Indeed, the arguments used by WikiLeaks to justify its actions are probably little different from those relied upon by politicians and journalists who exploit ‘leaked’ material – often in ways that seem more about the advancement of sectional interests rather than those of the public. Given this, it would seem incumbent on those who criticise WikiLeaks to renounce the use of leaks in general or to provide clear reasons why WikiLeaks may not use leaked information that others (including themselves) should be allowed to exploit.

Some critics of WikiLeaks have responded to this challenge by arguing that it is the indiscriminate release of classified (secret) material that distinguishes WikiLeaks’ conduct from that of others who ‘legitimately’ exploit leaked material. Specifically, the claim has been made that WikiLeaks has endangered the lives of people. This is a potentially powerful criticism of WikiLeaks. Most journalists and politicians are quite content to use information that is capable of destroying careers, marriages, etc. However, there seems to be a clear line drawn when it comes to releasing information that could put lives at risk – a principle that is applied in a number of areas (eg. not publishing the methods employed in suicide, etc).

If this is the nub of the criticism of WikiLeaks – that it is morally reprehensible to exploit ‘ill-gotten’ information in ways that put the lives of others at risk – then it is a powerful case that WikiLeaks and its supporters, in the media and elsewhere, must answer. However, it is also a case that must be answered by some of WikiLeaks’ most trenchant critics.

If this is the nub of the criticism of WikiLeaks – that it is morally reprehensible to exploit ‘ill-gotten’ information in ways that put the lives of others at risk – then it is a powerful case that WikiLeaks and its supporters, in the media and elsewhere, must answer. However, it is also a case that must be answered by some of WikiLeaks’ most trenchant critics.

Let us suppose that a bundle of 250,000 classified documents (diplomatic cables, etc), belonging to the government of the People’s Republic of China were to fall into the hands of the government of the United States of America. Do we imagine that the Americans would say, “How unfortunate. We must immediately return this material to the Chinese” – and then quickly return the lot without reading a word? Of course not! The US intelligence services would be all over the material. And if their trawl through the cache revealed information about any person whom they considered a threat to national security, then they would exploit that information – even to the point of removing the threat by lethal means. In other words, the United States (like any government) would have no hesitation in exploiting secret information for all it was worth – even if this was to endanger lives. And in doing so, the US Government would be acting predominantly (if not exclusively) in its national interest.

I have focused on the US because, in this case, the ‘shoe is on the other foot’ and it is the Americans’ classified information that has been ‘lost’, ‘leaked’ or ‘stolen’ (probably the word best applied to all cases covered by the euphemism ‘leaked’).

If the critics of WikiLeaks are to be credible, then they need to explain why it is justifiable for nations to use others’ information (often gathered illegally in the ‘target’ country through illicit, covert intelligence operations) – and to do so for narrow national interests – while it is unjustifiable for WikiLeaks to use the same kind of information in a relatively disinterested fashion by making it available to all.

This is not to suggest that WikiLeaks should adopt a standard no higher than that applied by governments. In my opinion, WikiLeaks should be diligent in ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that it does nothing to expose others to or heighten the risk of death or physical injury. The wrongs of others do not make it right for WikiLeaks to act indiscriminately. In saying this, WikiLeaks and those that publish its material claim that they do bring to bear a close editorial process designed to avoid such harms.

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have published material that governments intended to remain secret. The issues now being debated are complex and important. Unfortunately, the debate is leaving much unsaid and unchallenged on all sides. I would hope for some more candour and consistency of argument – especially from those who are most critical.

That said, one cannot but remark that on the same night that Julian Assange was being roundly criticised in some quarters, Australian journalists conferred their greatest honour on another one of their own, Laurie Oakes. He received the Gold Walkley Award for his use of leaked, confidential information in a manner that helped shape the outcome of a national election.

One of the complicating factors in this case is the widespread (unrestricted) publication of information on the internet. In the past, when publishers of leaked information have justified their actions by claiming that “the public has the right to know”, they have been referring to a particular public – ordinarily citizens of a particular nation. That is, the argument is that Australians have the right to know ‘Australian’ information, or that Americans have the right to know ‘American’ information, etc. But do the Chinese, or Russians (to name but two interested groups) have a right to know ‘American’ information (and vice versa)? What the WikiLeaks case invites us to consider is whether or not the ‘right to know’ can be extended to all peoples in relation to all information – irrespective of its source or ‘national identity’.

This is a debate that is worth having – a debate made necessary by the distributive power of the internet and the emergence of organisations such as WikiLeaks and publishers and journalists such as Julian Assange.

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.