Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wikileaks, the press, and government power: the catch

Fixing the secrecy system

...what the Wikileaks debate is really about: not the press’s right to publish secrets or the government’s right to keep them, but which part of the system for keeping them needs fixing in order for it all to work again. Those who would clamp down on Wikileaks want to fix the press part. But it’s unfixable, because though a “responsible” press will continue to exist, and though even Wikileaks has somewhat tempered its zeal, there will always be an “irresponsible” publisher out there. So now it falls to the government alone to delineate and enforce secrecy. Paradoxically, therefore, the revolution in openness ends up concentrating more power in the hands of the government.


Rather than trying to balance the value of an act of free speech against the cost of it, which is a tricky calculation, the United States divides the populace into the guardians of secrets (government employees) and publishers (everyone else). The government has almost total control over the former and almost none over the latter: it decides what secrets to keep and punishes severely those guardians who betray them, but anyone else who obtains and publishes a leak enjoys the protection of the first amendment, revoked only for speech that poses a “clear and present danger” to the United States.

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