08 December 2010

Lessons of Wikileaks

A system of free expression and other political rights is a pubic good. That means that for most participants in that system - say, corporations - there always is a powerful incentive not to pay the costs required to sustain that good. So when, as Paypal reportedly has admitted and other companies predictably soon also will*, the U.S. Government pressures them to toss commitment to free expression overboard, they will do so with alacrity. Principle goes by the board quickly when profits or legal exposure seem threatened.

The problem is that as Paypal, Mastercard, Visa, Amazon, Everydns.net and PostFinance (the Swiss bank handling funds for Julian Assange's legal defense fund) cut services to Wikileaks, they are acting on the government's allegation that Assange and/or Wikileaks may have committed a crime. To date there are no actual legal charges, let alone convictions in the fracas. And while Joe Lieberman is stomping around demanding that we simply dispense with the first amendment altogether it is not at all obvious that Assange and his compatriots have actually broken any law.

I am not big on conspiracy theories. But as the corporate world capitulates to government demands like this, I am tempted to reassess that propensity. And I wonder why it is that the companies are not nearly so interested in falling into line on say, tax compliance or environmental protections or whatever when the government stops by and says 'pretty please.'

It is important to note that not all the companies that the U.S. Government is pressuring in the anti-Wikileaks campaign have capitulated. According to this report The Guardian, the Swiss firm Switch, which now hosts the Wikileaks web site, is resisting the pressure. Just when one starts to think that all corporations are simply craven here comes a surprise.
Update (later that same day): *I highly recommend this post by Henry Farrell - who, unlike me, actually knows a lot about this general topic of government interference with the Internet - over at Crooked Timber. No need to take my data free speculation for anything more than what it is.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

And here I thought that it was always government capitulating to the demands of corporations. I guess there are a few exceptions :-)

happy holidays, Jim

08 December, 2010 11:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear you on this Jim. But then I think that in these types of instances, with a virtual guarantee of lax and inattentive reporting from the mainstream media, allegations and accusations will always outweigh substantive fact. All the government and big corporates are looking for is the appearance of illegality to dismiss his entire operation. I think it will be critically important to note and respond to any extradition of him from Sweden to the US, which (a) seems increasingly likely, and (b) is likely the motive behind their having re-opened the case...

08 December, 2010 12:35  

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