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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Irrational Non-Solutions to the WikiLeaks "Problem"

Internet censorship
There's nothing like good, old fashioned irrationality. So many other conditions sprout from it -- willful ignorance, stupidity, hatred, paranoia, and fanaticism, to name a few. While we're at it, let's add futility to the list.

New York Times:

The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said Tuesday.

When Air Force personnel on the service's computer network try to view the Web sites of The Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Spanish newspaper El PaĆ­s and the French newspaper Le Monde, as well as other sites that posted full confidential cables, the screen says "Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored," according to an Air Force official whose access was blocked and who shared the screen warning with The Times. Violators are warned that they face punishment if they try to view classified material from unauthorized Web sites.

"Some Air Force officials acknowledged that the steps taken might be in vain since many military personnel could gain access to the documents from home computers, despite admonishments from superiors not to read the cables without proper clearances," the story continues.

The ban "might be taken in vain?" Someone tell the Air Force they're spelling "certain to be" wrong. This is the definition of pointless. Not only can Air Force personnel view the sites at home, but this does absolutely nothing to the documents secret. If censorship is bad in most cases for a lot of reasons, we can add uselessness to those reasons in this case. It's hard to understand how this policy makes any sense at all.

"News media Web sites will be blocked if they post classified documents from the WikiLeaks Web site,"  Lt. Col. Brenda Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space Command, which oversees Air Force cyber systems, told the Times. "This is similar to how we'd block any other Web site that posted classified information."

That reads less like an explanation and more like an excuse. Once it's out, it's out. This doesn't do anything to keep anything secret.

But if the Air Force's remedy is futile, Representative-elect Allen West's of Florida is downright draconian. West was interviewed by a wingnut internet radio station and he had this to say (emphasis TP's):

Think Progress:

WEST: There are different means by which you can be attacked. I mean it doesn't have to be a bomb or an airplane flying into a building. It doesn't have to be a shooting. It can be through cyber attacks, it could be through leaking of very sensitive classified information. Regardless of whether you think it causes any harm, the fact that here is an individual that is not an American citizen first and foremost, for whatever reason gotten his hands on classified American material and put it out there in the public domain. And I think that we also should be censoring the American news agencies which enabled him to do this and also supported him and applauding him for the efforts. So that's kind of aiding and abetting of a serious crime.

I should add that West was one of those super-patriotic Tea Party candidates who claimed to worship the Constitution. Now here he is shredding the First Amendment. And, again, it'd be futile anyway. Can't see it on the Time's website? Then head over to Der Spiegel. Unless the US begins to take China's approach to the internet, West's "solution" is not just oppressive and unconstitutional, but it's stupid. Conservatives would argue that "the Constitution isn't a suicide pact," but I'd argue that needlessly abandoning freedom of the press in a futile effort to keep secrets would be suicide in itself. The media may be broken, but without press freedom and freedom of speech, there's nothing keeping government in check. This limping, wounded shell of a free press still serves a valuable function. It just doesn't do it very well.

And even if we were able to block all access to WikiLeaks documents in the US (an impossible task), it would do nothing to keep them secret. All those foreign sources would still be out there and everyone else in the world would still have access to that information. If crapping all over the First Amendment is un-American, then doing it needlessly and to no real effect is worse.

Some on the right believe that assassinating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would be helpful. It wouldn't. WikiLeaks is an organization, not an individual. This "solution" makes as much sense as saying that killing the guy who runs a torrent website would end internet piracy. Already, Wikileaks is being hosted by thousands of mirror sites globally and WikiLeaks will soon have a rival leak site, OpenLeaks.

As I said, reaction to WikiLeaks has been irrational. Rational would be to beef up information security and to take the radical step of becoming a model global citizen. It's our crimes we have to worry about, not the witnesses to those crimes. Logically speaking, the fault for an action lies with the actor, not with those who tell everyone about those actions. If you don't want to be embarrassed, then don't do anything embarrassing. If you don't want to be seen as a criminal, don't commit crimes.

It's really very simple. And, best of all, it's rational.


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