A Free Irresponsible Press

As WikiLeaks gets ready to re-open its user-submission system today, Yochai Benkler’s article, A Free Irresponsible Press: WikiLeaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate, is more than a worthwhile read. The announced WikiLeaks drop-box opening makes Benkler’s piece immediately relevant, but it is its broader significance that makes it a true must-read for Internet researchers and users alike.

The author of The Wealth of Networks, and a Harvard law professor, Benkler provides a through, well-informed, and dispassionate analysis of the socio-political and legal circumstances surrounding the WikiLeaks case; the text is annotated with Julian Assange’s comments.

Benkler’s examination starts by tracing a short, yet turbulent WikiLeaks history (or, more precisely, the history of the WikiLeaks public perception), from the Amnesty International award-winning media website, to an alleged security threat (the analysis had been written before the WikiLeaks pendulum switched once again, and this website won a prestigious Australian journalistic award three days ago).

The turning point in this transformation Benkler recognizes in the release of the State Department diplomatic cables, launched in November 2010. Although the Department of Defense had identified WikiLeaks as a ‘security threat’ already in 2008, it was after the release of embassy cables that the U.S. ‘dramatic and sharp response’, as Benkler terms it, has begun.

The author notes that this  ‘integrated, cross-system attack on Wikileaks, led by the U.S. government with support from other governments, private companies, and online vigilantes, provides an unusually crisp window into the multi-system structure of freedom and constraint in the networked environment and helps us to map the emerging networked fourth estate’ (p.330).  And it is exactly this window surrounding freedoms and constraints in contemporary networked environment that constitutes the core of Benkler’s article.

Benkler takes a detailed look into following elements of the ‘cross-system attack’ on WikiLeaks: the socio-political framing of WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization; media disinformation about the website, its mode of operation, leaks, and members; denial of service attacks and disruption of payment services carried out via private sector entities such as Amazon, Pay Pal, Visa, and the like; direct and indirect legal action, most prominently the dentition of an alleged WikiLeaks informer, Bradley Manning; exercise of organizational power, such as forbidding the government personnel with security clearance to access the WikiLeaks website.

Following this, Benkler examines the cornerstones of the freedom of press, particularly when juxtaposed with the issues of censorship, national interest, Espionage Act, and the First Amendment. Drawing on famous Pentagon Papers and other cases, Bekler demonstrates that identical legal approach that would have been, and had been applied to the New York Times or any other major media in order to ensure freedom of press needs to be applied to WikiLeaks.

Benkler quotes the Supreme Court in saying that ‘liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher’, and stresses that ‘what is being protected by this refusal to privilege the New York Times over Wikileaks is the continued access of the public to a steady flow of truthful publically relevant information about its government’s inner workings’ (p. 357, 359).

This argument gained strength this week with Walkley Foundation’s award to  WikiLeaks for its ‘courageous and controversial commitment to the finest traditions of journalism: justice through transparency’ and successful application of new technologies ‘to penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup’.

In so doing, the Walkley Foundation has actually confirmed the central argument of Bekler’s piece; namely, that new structures of public sphere have to be recognized and protected. Decentralized information production, peer sharing, participatory knowledge production, and other forms of the emerging forth estate are playing an increasingly important role in various aspects of contemporary socio-political life, and their free development in networked environments needs to be granted as one of the central contemporary civil rights.

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