Simmering just below the surface of all the drama in the news over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s alleged crimes is a very interesting debate about censorship, freedom of the press, and what even counts as being “the press.” Frankly, Assange has done his beliefs and supporters a real disservice by being such an asshole. If he hadn’t allegedly done the things he allegedly did, then everyone would be talking about censorship instead of debating the meaning of consent.
Not that both of these topics aren’t worthy of discussing in their own right. (Disclaimer: I don’t think the definition of “consent” is up for debate, but it’s certainly useful to discuss the problem of rape and educate people about the need for clear consent.) But see, there? I’m doing it right now. You lose something when you try to talk about rape and censorship in the same breath.
I wanted to take a minute to talk not specifically about WikiLeaks, but more generally about how easy it is to cross a line when it comes to censorship. It’s easy to see how far too far is in hindsight. How do you tell when you’re on your way there? And what do you do to roll back that censorship once you get there?
In a story yesterday about WikiLeaks, the Morning Edition team at NPR discussed the ability to create a worm that would infiltrate people’s computers and destroy any documents related to WikiLeaks. NPR’s technology expert Herbert Lin commented, “Whether it’s a wise thing to do and whether it would serve the government’s goals, that’s a different question [than whether it is possible].”
I think the answers to those questions are pretty easy. Would it serve the government’s goals of keeping the information secret to create such a worm? Absolutely. Is it a wise thing to do? Probably not. Because the question is always how far should it or can it go. Can the government create a worm to get rid of any files that speculate about operations, regardless of whether they’re informed guesses? What about anything that even mentions WikiLeaks, whether or not it contains covert information that was posted to the site? What do you do if the servers where that information is hosted are located in another country? Does it matter if that country is, say, Canada, Switzerland, or Saudia Arabia?
These are basic questions about topics related to the WikiLeaks discussion. That doesn’t even get into the rampant hypotheticals about the huge can of worms (apologies for the pun) that come with setting precedent for authorizing the government to seize personal property in the form of information on privately owned computers.
As a political scientist and a practitioner of politics, censorship scares me. Why? Because of what happens next after a instance of censorship. Power, once given, is very hard to take away. (Fun fact: The US Supreme Court has the power to declare which cases are constitutional matters because they took it, and nobody challenged it.)
As a note, from now on I’ll be doing a weekly post on politics, women in politics, and other… government and politics-type things. I’m a staffer for an elected official, and I teach political science at a liberal arts college. If there are any topics you want to hear about, or if you’d like to play Ask The Political Scientist, please let me know!