Dan Gillmor, guardian.co.uk, Thursday 27 October 2011 17.09 BST
The mainstream media should be up in arms about corporations’ ability to choke off sources of WikiLeaks’ funding
Suppose you are the proprietor of an information service. Your customers buy what you sell using the major payment systems such as Visa, MasterCard, Western Union and PayPal. The information you provide is greatly upsetting to powerful people who would prefer to keep it a secret. You have been charged with no crime, much less convicted of one. But one day, you discover that all of these payment systems – quite obviously responding to pressure from the government but citing no actual legal authority – are refusing to accept money from your customers on your behalf.
This, sadly, is not a supposition. It is nearly the precise situation that WikiLeaks has encountered since late last year, stripping most of the revenue away and now, as reported this week, forcing the whistleblowing media operation to suspend all activity except fundraising in a struggle merely to survive.
If this was happening to any traditional media company, it would be a scandal, and the media in general would be screaming about the threat to free speech it represented. While the news media are covering the WikiLeaks situation, they are not offering serious support in ways that matter to an organisation with which they have much more in common than not.
The New York Times has often angered American politicians and bureaucrats in recent decades – and in fact, the Times’s activities in ferreting out classified information differs not at all, in any practical sense (and probably in any legal way), from what WikiLeaks has done. Like other publications, the Times has reported on WikiLeaks’ financial predicament. And as at others, the editorial page has not condemned the government and financial institution actions that have precipitated it.
I’m not an unalloyed WikiLeaks supporter, nor an acolyte of Julian Assange. The organisation has, however, done a great deal of valuable work – and partnered with a number of traditional media companies, including the Guardian, (before falling out with many of them) – and has shone a light on matters that turned out to be important for the public to know. Its decision to publish several hundred thousand unredacted US State Department cables, after earlier being much more careful about what it was releasing, was in my view a serious misstep. But even if I strongly disliked WikiLeaks, I would be stepping up now to say that the financial blockade is a danger to everyone. It is a harbinger of a future where governments will find new leverage points to shut down the media they don’t like.
For that reason, the failure of traditional media organisations to staunchly defend WikiLeaks is itself a scandal.
The cowardice of the payment systems, not to mention their hypocrisy, is a disgrace as well. Then again, we don’t expect much better from financial institutions at this point. But we have to recognise their power. They have become the de facto method of consumer commerce in the new century. That is why we need to start seeing these commerce systems more as what American telecommunications law calls “common carriers” – organisations that are required to transmit information, in return having immunity from responsibility for what is contained in the messages. A phone company is a common carrier. If users plan a bank robbery over the phone, they, not the carrier, can be prosecuted.
But when carriers are choke points, they provide the leverage governments (and others) need to stem the flow of information, or at least put a serious obstacle in the way of its passage through modern communications systems. The nationwide internet filtering in places like Saudi Arabia doesn’t totally block digitally savvy people from getting information they want, but it works well enough to keep the masses away from material the government deems unacceptable. But even in America, land of the first amendment, the government has sought and found ways to make trouble for speech that its corporate sponsors in Hollywood loathe – such as hyperlinks to sites that host material allegedly infringing on copyrights – using methods civil libertarians call abhorrent abuses of authority.
Money, too, is information. In the modern world, it is data racing around a section of cyberspace. WikiLeaks hasn’t been entirely shut out of the ability to receive donations, but as noted, the blockade is an enormously effective speed bump.
The point of free speech is not to protect only speech of which we approve. It is, much more importantly, to protect speech we loathe.
So, even if you loathe WikiLeaks but revere the ability to speak out – and, among other things, the ability for journalists to persist in their work despite an increasingly restrictive environment – you should be asking yourself a simple question: could this happen to me or some organisation of which I do approve?
The answer, of course, is yes. Which is why we all need to be pushing back against this dangerous blockade, and soon.