Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wiki-Leaks, Wiki-Leakers, and Wiki-Ethics

"I believe that, overall, WikiLeaks involves grossly unethical conduct, some of which is also illegal." Thus concludes Margaret Somerville, the Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law at McGill University. She has posted a thoughtful and careful analysis of WikiLeaks, its founder Assange, those who stole the documents, and those, like the editors of the New York Times and the Guardian (UK), who colluded, so to speak (and not her expression), in distributing the stolen goods. Her article is available at
and originally appeared in Cardus at

Somerville's analysis is especially welcome given the thoughtless, indeed adolescent glee with which many otherwise decent people have supported Assange and WikiLeaks. She considers both the claim that WikiLeaks has had advanced the cause of openness in world affairs and also the view that "Assange and WikiLeaks have advanced, and are continuing to advance, the interests of very evil regimes against the interests of (relatively) good ones" and "accuse him of treason, sedition, sabotage, espionage and terrorism" and argue that he should be charged with incitement to commit murder or, indeed, assassinated. But she rejects the latter course of action as unethical except in extreme circumstances that do not and are unlikely to obtain.

Somerville also asks whether Assange's conduct should be considered a form of cyber-terrorism.
The primary goal of terrorism is to disrupt the societies that are attacked and make them fearful. WikiLeaks will result in the disruption of diplomatic exchanges that can be crucial to protecting our societies. It will provide information to those who would do us harm and could assist them in that goal. Finally, it could harm relationships with our allies, all of which could make many of us justifiably fearful. One problem here is that our laws on treason, sedition and so on, have not been updated to take into account possibilities such as WikiLeaks that are opened up by the cyber-world.

Assange's conduct, she argues, "shows the grave threat that just one individual can pose to societies, which is a valid fear in relation to terrorism, in general, and bioterrorism or the use of small nuclear devices, in particular. One terrorist working in his kitchen or home garage can create weapons with enormous destructive potential.

The destructive capacity of contemporary terrorist acts need not, however, involve the detonation of a bomb or use of other weapons of 21st century warfare. We must ask what threat WikiLeaks poses to our general "social capital", the metaphysical entity that consists of the "norms, networks, and trust [that we rely on] for cooperation and mutual benefit . . . [and which] has enormous potential to enable people to act in solidarity for the sake of collective goals"? The clear answer is that it will likely damage every element of it.

In line with Dalrymple's argument about the classically totalitarian aim of abolishing the distinction between public and private spheres (see my previous post and link below), she notes that
Even giving Assange and his co-leakers the benefit of any doubt regarding their claim that WikiLeaks is a force for good, instead of promoting collective good by augmenting social capital, then, WikiLeaks promotes collective harm by depleting social capital. Keep in mind such harm is mainly, or only, to our Western democratic societies. It does not touch other societies that reject our systems of governance, values, and way of life. Indeed, WikiLeaks is likely to assist them.

Somerville, however, is careful to distinguish levels of state and individual, whereas Dalrymple appears to treat the stealing and leaking of state documents by individuals as on a par with the state's opening individuals' letters. But both agree on the threat to liberal democracies and the norms, trust, and rule of law on which they depend and, on the other hand, the potential of Assange's behavior for advancing the cause of the most repressive and totalitarian regimes with which those democracies must deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment