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Freedom of Online Speech in a Post-Wikileaks World

Freedom of Online Speech in a Post-Wikileaks World

The furor surrounding Wikileaks has raised questions about the true limits of free speech in what is perhaps the most unregulated medium in the world. "Free speech online is under fire, but it has always been under fire to some degree," said Syracuse University's Milton Mueller. "What's new is that governments are developing new institutional mechanisms to control Internet expression."

In the wake of Cablegate, the massive release of sensitive documents released online by WikiLeaks and the subsequent DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks by pro- and anti-WikiLeaks factions on each others' websites, a fact long-known to only a few cognoscenti became public -- free speech online is very much endangered.

Both sides claimed they were following a higher calling. The pro-WikiLeaks hackers stated they were supporting free speech, and their opponents painted themselves as patriots.

That concept of patriotism apparently struck a chord in the ears of some U.S. leaders. Senator Joe Lieberman, who's chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, suggested that the Feds investigate The New York Times for publishing classified diplomatic cables released during Cablegate.

He reportedly told Fox News that the Times had committed at least an act of bad citizenship and said that whether the newspaper had committed a crime warrants an inquiry by the Justice Department.

David Sanger, the Times' chief Washington correspondent, responded by saying that, in essence, the material was already public and ignoring it would have been irresponsible.

Lieberman wasn't alone; other lawmakers used adjectives such as "spies" and "cyber-terrorists" in referring to the media. Some suggested Americans didn't have the right to download and read such sensitive documents. That, in turn, resulted in some government departments banning their staff from downloading or reading the documents at work.

Lawmaker outbursts led a coalition of advocacy organizations spearheaded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to publish an open letter calling on government officials to respect freedom of expression in the debate over Cablegate.

Freedom's Just Another Word

The EFF's letter described legislation proposed by American lawmakers in response to Cablegate as "rash" and warned it could, in effect, muzzle the free press. Government officials' statements have created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the general public, leading them to question their rights with regard to the documents posted by Wikileaks, the EFF's letter charged.

Those opposed to the lawmakers' reactions were concerned that their statements were a throwback to the McCarthy era and heard echoes of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in their words.

The Air Force reportedly barred its staff from using their computers at work to view the websites of publications, including blogs, that posted documents released by WikiLeaks.

The Obama administration apparently directed federal employees and contractors not to read the documents issued during Cablegate unless they have the appropriate security clearance or authorization.

In keeping with the Administration directive, the Library of Congress blocked access from all its computers to the WikiLeaks website.

How these edicts would prevent those affected from watching TV or accessing the banned websites from home or other locations didn't seem to be a concern.

Hush Your Mouf'

American lawmakers and government officials justified their reactions to Cablegate by stating that Cablegate endangered people abroad who worked with the U.S. government and would make it more difficult for America in international relations and diplomacy.

However, within days, WikiLeaks supporters set up hundreds of mirrored sites around the world so that the documents would continue to be available online.

So, were American lawmakers and government officials overreacting? A report conducted by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society may help answer that question.

This report found that cyberattacks against independent media and human rights sites are common. Some attacks were apparently launched by governments, within and outside their borders. However, the researchers did not find governments taking responsibility for DDoS attacks.

In other words, governments generally aren't comfortable with free speech, even online; they may try to suppress it; and they won't 'fess up when they do.

From that point of view, perhaps U.S. lawmakers and officials' reaction to Cablegate was par for the course.

The First Amendment

"Online speech is only as strong as its weakest link," Rebecca Jeschke of the EFF told TechNewsWorld. "If hosting providers cave quickly when challenged about hosting politically volatile or controversial content, then they will be challenged more often, and we might not have an Internet that works the way we'd like it to."

Jeschke was referring to Amazon.com and other Web hosting sites that kicked WikiLeaks off their servers once the Cablegate controversy erupted.

Most importantly, refusing to host controversial content means Americans lose out on their First Amendment right to read the controversial information, Jeschke asserted. "The First Amendment strongly protects the right of publishers to distribute truthful political information, and Internet users have a fundamental right to read and debate it," she added.

In the wake of Cablegate, some Americans began exercising those rights. Some people identifying themselves as librarians condemned the Library of Congress' ban on accessing the WikiLeaks website from its computers, for instance.

Fighting the Good Fight

Whether Americans and Netizens from other parts of the world can exercise their right to read and debate information on the Web is another matter altogether. Increasingly, people are creating ad hoc groups online to go after websites they either don't like or with whose messages they don't agree.

This practice is called "hacktivism," and the ZScaler Research Team predicts in it 2011 security report that the phenomenon is going to grow.

"What we observe now is cyber-retaliation," Ron Meyran, director of security products at Radware, told TechNewsWorld.

It's almost impossible to defend against such attacks -- but they're insignificant compared to government attempts to suppress free speech because governmental acts implicitly have legitimacy.

Put another way, it's assault when you kick down a neighbor's door and thump him because you think he might one day thump you, but it's a pre-emptive strike when a government does it.

Gub'mint Hates the Global Village

Along the lines of pre-emptive attacks, governments are using new technology to control online discourse in ways that are invisible except to experts. Some of their actions, such as Internet filtering, are overt. Others are covert, such as influencing ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which allocates top-level domain (TLD) name spaces.

Apparently ICANN has clauses in the proposed final version of its TLD applicant guidebook that let objectors anonymously protest the allocation of TLDs on the grounds of public interest, morality and public order, according to Ben Wagner's post in the Global Voices Online blog.

"Free speech online is under fire, but it has always been under fire to some degree," Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University, who went through the ICANN handbook, told TechNewsWorld. "What's new is that governments are developing new institutional mechanisms to control Internet expression."

The new ICANN TLD process "can be considered the first truly globally coordinated attempt to restrict Internet expression indirectly," Mueller pointed out.

The invocation of morality and public order are "an attempt by governments to impose a very vague standard of suppression," Mueller added. "Surprisingly, the strongest pressure to do this has come from the U.S. government, which ostensibly must uphold a constitutional commitment to free expression."


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