The internet and government
Leaks and lawsuits
From The Economist print edition
Lawyers and governments battle over free speech on the internet
BEFORE they were leaked onto the internet, the activities in the Cayman Islands of Bank Julius Baer, and how far they may or may not have been approved by the tax authorities in the bank's native Switzerland, were strictly confidential. Even after a disgruntled senior executive posted some rum-sounding details to Wikileaks, a website specialising in information provided by whistle-blowers, they would have remained obscure. But the bank's attempts to have Wikileaks shut down have brought exactly the sort of scrutiny that it had shunned.
The bank now says it is considering its position. But the legal battles in California have highlighted both the legal limbo in cyberspace, and the way that the evolution of the web is widening the gap between those that want to share information (even illegally) and lawyers and governments that may want to control it.
Wikileaks appears to have been founded by an Australian living in Kenya. It boasts a distinguished advisory board, featuring both cryptographers and pro-democracy activists from such places as China. It offers “military-strength” encryption for those wanting to upload files anonymously. Material is reviewed by journalists and lawyers and then put on the web for public discussion. Big recent scoops have included an operating manual for guards at the American internment camp at Guantánamo, a document relating to the British government's expensive rescue of Northern Rock, a troubled bank, and material relating to official corruption in Kenya.
Working out where to sue it is tricky. Wikileaks has no offices or legal presence. Its servers are in Sweden and Belgium: countries, its website says, that offer strong legal protection. An initial American court ruling removed wikileaks.org from the internet domain registry, making it harder to find. But on February 29th the same judge reversed his ruling, to the delight of a bevy of free-speech advocates.
Websites that can be edited by anybody anywhere, part of what is often termed Web 2.0, are a powerful tool for political and social protest. In Colombia, protesters against FARC, a guerrilla group, used Facebook to organise a 4m-strong demonstration. Google Maps allowed a few bright Kenyan bloggers to display the incidence of post-election violence reported by text message. Russian bloggers have mobilised on LiveJournal to expose corruption at a pharmaceutical company.
But the golden age of cyberactivism may be coming to an end. China restricts access to anything with a Tibetan or pro-democracy flavour. Turkey blocked access to sites on Wordpress, a popular blogging platform, because it hosted material critical of Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of the secular republic. Muslim countries, worried about the way in which the internet undermines conservative social mores on nudity and mingling, are twitchy too. Sites such as YouTube or even Craigslist, which offers an online dating service among a myriad of innocuous free-of-charge classified advertisements, are often banned in whole or in part.
Filtering out specific content from such sites is the subtlest but most expensive means of maintaining control. A simpler but more controversial approach is to block an entire domain. Inexpert official intervention can easily backfire. In Pakistan earlier this year the authorities (inadvertently, they claim) briefly made YouTube, a popular video-sharing site, inaccessible even for users abroad. A big fan of the site is none other than the country's president, Pervez Musharraf. According to Techcrunch, a technology blog, he was a conspicuously frequent visitor to a facility at Davos, a plutocratic Swiss shindig, where summit-goers could answer questions posed by YouTube users.
Ethan Zuckerman, a Harvard internet guru, says that authoritarian regimes find it harder to block such general sites as YouTube than to block those run by a specific group (Human Rights Watch, for example). The second lot appeals solely to dissidents, whereas the first are useful to many more internet users who are interested in apolitical subjects.
But Michael Anti, a Chinese free-speech advocate, fears that state and commercial interests are colluding to produce Web 2.0 products that are apolitical but attractive. The convenience of China's Tudou and Baidu makes them strong competitors to foreign rivals like YouTube and Google. That makes an outright ban on the foreign sites less thorny.
To counter this, Chinese activists are returning to older, decentralised, internet services such as e-mail and chat rooms. These may be safer, but they have little reach outside the dissenting elite. Maybe netizens are too busy enjoying the new social and cultural freedoms offered by the internet to care about politics.