Lentis/Freedom of Information: WikiLeaks

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"Which country is suffering from too much freedom of speech? Name it, is there one?" - Julian Assange in interview with Chris Anderson on TED[1]

A representative democracy is responsible for providing some level of transparency to its people. However, when it comes to sensitive information, governments must choose between national security and freedom of information. These critical decisions are subject to great scrutiny; especially in cases where citizens distrust their government. The advent of WikiLeaks has enabled anyone with access to confidential information the ability to spread it anonymously and effectively to a large audience. While the equilibrium has not yet been fully established, technical evolution combined with social activism has created a significant social impact.

WikiLeaks Logo


"Free speech is what regulates government and is what regulates law" - Julian Assange in interview with Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report[2].

WikiLeaks is an organization that was most notably founded by computer programmer and activist, Julian Assange in 2006[3]. It acts as a platform where sources like anonymous journalists can release private information. WikiLeaks’ role is to filter and circulate that information to the public.

WikiLeaks has caused quite a commotion in recent years due to its releases. Wikileaks has obtained and released confidential government documents, personal email account records and diplomatic cables. Some of this information has led to public shock and outrage while other releases have been trivial. The technical ability which WikiLeaks has however, to distribute classified information to a worldwide audience instantaneously, has reinvigorated a worldwide debate on government transparency.

Freedom of Information[edit]

The U.S. government has struggled with freedom of information since its inception. In order to maintain national security, the government has withheld information from the general public but that filtering power is frequently questioned[4]. This debate becomes particularly heated in times of unpopular government action[5]. There have been several pieces of legislation passed regarding transparency of government and all seek to balance the beneficial effects of disclosure with its harmful ones [6].

Freedom of Information Act (1966)[edit]

The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966, established a legal precedence in the U.S. that all government documents, except for those meeting special criteria, should be available to the general public. While these criteria have become increasingly scrutinized and amended over the years, this legislation placed the burden on the U.S. government to make available all relevant documentation of their actions.

Pentagon Papers (1971)[edit]

The Pentagon Papers describe a series of documents released by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 which unveiled secret U.S. government knowledge of the Vietnam War. While working for the government Ellsberg came across these documents and felt that the U.S. public should be aware of them [7]. This information fueled the fire of anti-war protests and developed further distrust in the government of the time. Many in the media have compared this incident to WikiLeaks and while Ellsberg supports the fundamental idea of WikiLeaks[8], it is clear that WikiLeaks has taken a more radical and absolute approach than Ellsberg did[9]

Government in the Sunshine Act (1976)[edit]

The Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976 was created for the purpose of government transparency. It requires the government to notify the general public of any meetings and sets the standard meeting as public unless it meets exception criteria[10].

Major Leaks[edit]

Climate Change Emails (2009)[edit]

In November 2009, WikiLeaks released documents showing that the U.S. government exaggerated truths about global warming to gain greater public support for the Copenhagen Accord [11]. This led to a media outcry raising many questions about the truths climate change.

Afghanistan War Logs (2010)[edit]

In early 2010, Private Bradley Manning turned over about 76,000 highly classified military files about the Afghanistan War to WikiLeaks [12]. This was the largest and most severe military leak since the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg [13]. Within those documents, WikiLeaks released a video depicting U.S. soldiers shooting at journalists and innocent Iraqi civilians [12]. This raised questions about possible war crimes by the U.S. As a result of his actions, Manning was arrested and is currently being held in confinement[12].

Diplomatic Cables (2010)[edit]

In November, WikiLeaks received access to about 200,000 files they called the “Diplomatic Cables.” They stated that they would release these files over the course of the following months. These cables contained facts about American diplomacy towards foreign leaders and events taking place in embassies [14].



In response to the corporate attacks on WikiLeaks, the group Anonymous spoke out in defense of Assange. Anonymous has been a long time supporter and advocate of WikiLeaks. Their mission is to create transparency and eliminate censorship [15]. They launched Operation Avenge Assange to issue Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks against any websites or corporation that condemned WikiLeaks [16]. Although these attacks did not alter corporations' policies towards WikiLeaks, they effectively inflicted some financial damage [15].

Libertarian Party[edit]

Few politicians have spoken in favor of WikiLeaks. The Libertarian Party advocates freedom of information and complete government transparency [17]. Longtime Libertarian and Congressman, Ron Paul, issued a statement on the floor of the House of Representatives asserting that America needs more WikiLeaks. He defended Assange, saying that the U.S. should not condemn someone for simply displaying truthful facts [18].


Television news channels and newspapers (e.g. The New York Times) have used WikiLeaks' releases as sources for information[19]. WikiLeaks reduces the risk for the media by bearing the burden of illegal investigative journalism. Since the media outlets already have well-established connections to the general public, they are able to present the leaked information to a broader audience.


Most opponents of WikiLeaks are so because of the information leaked about them, or are countries or organizations where information freedom is already heavily restricted. The United States remains the most ardent opponent of WikiLeaks due to the shear immensity of sensitive American files released, although many other countries vocally disapprove, including China, France, Iran, Australia, and others. Other large organizations as well have been affected, including religious organizations, national assemblies, and corporations, as well as personal accounts and college fraternities [20].

United States[edit]

Over 740,000 documents were leaked since the inception of Wikileaks, with over 95% of this information sensitive to the United States government. Probably the most damaging of these was the dipolomatic cable leak of 2010 which released detailed sensitive diplomatic notes, cables, and information damaging the relation of the U.S. with over 85 countries and 7 organizations [21]. It outraged many U.S. government officials, including Joe Lieberman and Newt Gingrich who publicly stated that Julian Assange should be prosecuted and WikiLeaks shut down immediately [22]. Although the United States already has one of the most open government systems, it is ironically the largest target by WikiLeaks due its size and power, and can do considerable damage at the level illustrated:

"President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal. By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals." - White House Statement from 11/28/2010 [23]

United States Response[edit]

Following WikiLeaks' apparent hostility to United States interests, military and civilian agencies starting announcing regulation to discourage visiting the site. Violators were threatened with prosecution, stretching even to their families at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2011 [24]. All government employees, especially those with security clearances are warned against visiting sites like WikiLeaks, stating it violates their security status to seek out secrets not intended for one to see, and threatens expulsion from the agency or revocation of any access [25].


Corporations associated with WikiLeaks took notice of government opposition and began disconnecting themselves from the organization. The first to react was Amazon.com. On December 1st, Amazon stopped renting server space to WikiLeaks [15] and as a result, their domain name was shut down. PayPal followed by issuing a statement saying it would not allow any donations to be made to WikiLeaks. Similarly, Visa and MasterCard stated that payments to WikiLeaks would not be processed on their cards.[15]

The media immediately raised questions about the legality of these corporate actions towards WikiLeaks. For example, PayPal allows payments to groups like the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), so why single out WikiLeaks? [26]

Impact of WikiLeaks[edit]

Transparent Government[edit]

In a democratic society, where people expect a level of involvement in government, transparency is a necessity. Some people feel they are entitled to know the secrets that their government is hiding from them. At the same time, the government cannot release information that would end up harming its own people. Wikileaks has brought this dilemma of balance to the forefront of current issues.

WikiLeaks may possibly be counterproductive in their goal of creating more transparent governments. Many proponents of open governments are hesitant to support WikiLeaks having seen it cause tighter U.S. regulation of classified documents.[6] Simon Chesterman asserts that government officials are now well aware that every document they produce could come under public scrutiny[27]. If they have something worth hiding, they will take care to make sure it is secretive[27].

Public Opinion[edit]

Results of CBS News poll in December 2010 [28]

With well established social systems, such as U.S. mass media, new technologies must often adapt to survive. Most rely on mass media outlets to analyze and process the massive amounts of public data and distill the useful information. Wikileaks' focus on quantitative dumping of information rather than quality investigative journalism means that little useful information is released directly to the public and rely heavily on media partners to publicize the information[27]. Thus, unless the mainstream media keeps up with each release, the American general public is increasingly likely to dismiss the WikiLeaks data because of increasing quantity and so decreasing value per release. [6]. However, WikiLeaks has a more profound impact on governments due to the fear of possible widespread scrutiny.

Even with greater transparency, there seems to be a lack of public support for WikiLeaks. Perhaps due to the clear endangerment of American assets or the relative lack of importance of most of the leaks, Americans generally do not support WikiLeaks and feel that WikiLeaks releases actually hurt the public interest, as illistrated by a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press [29].

Impetus for Change[edit]

While the overall success of WikiLeaks in accomplishing its goals is still uncertain, its popularity and relevance indicate that some level of change is required. Support for WikiLeaks seems to reveal a distrust in government, which is contradictory to the ideal of representative democracy. It has also shown that strict governmental regulations on employees only bring resentment from within and fail to fully discourage dissenters.

Overall, the revolutionary technical step in the direction of freedom of information better illustrates the sociotechnical equilibrium line between the information sought by the public and the information it does not care to see and its balance with the same views by the government. It is clear that this complex socio-technical system requires further discussion to be resolved.


  1. Chris Anderson, Julian Assange, TED Conferences LLC. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_assange_why_the_world_needs_wikileaks.html
  2. Colbert, S. (Director). (2010). April 12, 2010 [Television series episode]. In The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. Retrieved from http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/270712/april-12-2010/julian-assange
  3. Press. Wikileaks.org. Retrieved from http://wikileaks.org/Press.html#wsf.
  4. Sunstein, C. R. (1986, May). Government Control of Information. California Law Review, 74(3), 889-921. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3480399
  5. World Bank Institute. (2002). The Right to Tell" The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=56punueI7G0C&lpg=PA22&ots=ypfRmp0mzX&dq=in%20war%20government%20transparency&lr&pg=PP4#v=onepage&q=in%20war%20government%20transparency&f=false
  6. a b c Fenster, Mark, Disclosure’s Effects: Wikileaks and Transparency (July 28, 2011). Iowa Law Review, Vol. 97, 2012. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1797945
  7. Cooper, M., & Roberts, S. (2011, June 7). After 40 Years, the Complete Pentagon Papers. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/us/08pentagon.html
  8. Ellsberg, M. (2010, December 8). Ellsberg: “EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.”. Retrieved from http://www.ellsberg.net/archive/public-accuracy-press-release
  9. Abrams, F. (2010, December 29). Why WikiLeaks Is Unlike the Pentagon Papers [Editorial]. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204527804576044020396601528.html
  10. Government in the Sunshine Act. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://accessreports.com/statutes/sunshine.htm
  11. Carrington, D. (2010, December 7). WikiLeaks climate change cables: What do you think? The Guardian. Received from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2010/dec/07/wikileaks-climate-change-reaction
  12. a b c CNN. (2010, November 10). Timeline: WikiLeaks. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/11/30/wikileaks.timeline/index.html.
  13. Kowtko, M. (2011). Securing our nation and protecting privacy. Systems, Applications and Technology Conference (LISAT), 2011 IEEE Long Island, 1-6.
  14. Palm Beach Post News. (2011, April 28). A timeline of WikiLeaks. Retrieved from http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/a-timeline-of-wikileaks-1080769.html.
  15. a b c d Bodo, B. (2011, March 7). You Have No Sovereignty Where We Gather – Wikileaks and Freedom, Autonomy and Sovereignty in the Cloud. Social Science Research Network. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1780519&rec=1&srcabs=1721442
  16. Steve, M. (2011). Anonymous: Serious threat or mere annoyance? Network Security, 2011(1), 4-10. doi:10.1016/S1353-4858(11)70004-6
  17. Libertarian Party. (2010, May). Libertarian Party 2010 Platform. Received from http://www.lp.org/platform
  18. Webster, S. (2010, December 3). Ron Paul: ‘What we need is more WikiLeaks’. Retrieved from http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/12/03/ron-paul-what-wikileaks/.
  19. Cottingham, K. (2011, April 27). New York Times publishes WikiLeaks, buries Climategate. The Daily Caller. Retrieved from http://dailycaller.com/2010/11/30/new-york-times-publishes-wikileaks-buries-climategate/
  20. Jeff Stein, Washington Post, Anti-Censorship leader Aftergood Blast WikiLeaks: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/spy-talk/2010/06/anti-censorship_leader_aftergo.html
  21. Wikipedia, Information Published by Wikileaks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_published_by_WikiLeaks
  22. Greenwald, G. (2011, November 27). WikiLeaks win major journalism award in Australia. The Global Realm. Retrieved from http://theglobalrealm.com/2011/12/03/wikileaks-wins-major-journalism-award-in-australia/
  23. Statement by the Press Secretary. (n.d.). Retrieved from The White House website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/11/28/statement-press-secretary
  24. Steven Aftergood, "Accessing WikiLeaks Violates Espionage Act, USAF Says", Secrecy News: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2011/02/accessing_wikileaks.html
  25. Federal Register, Executive Order 13526-Classified National Security Information Memorandum of December 29, 2009: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo/eo-13526fr.pdf
  26. Masnick, M. (2011, July 5). WikiLeaks Planning Legal Action Against PayPal, MasterCard, & Visa. Retrieved from http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110705/02213614966/wikileaks-planning-legal-action-against-paypal-mastercard-visa.shtml.
  27. a b c Chesterman, Simon, WikiLeaks, Secrets, and Lies (December 2, 2010). Project Syndicate, December 2, 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1721442
  28. Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus and Anthony Salvanto, CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20024619-503544.html
  29. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. (2010). Most Say WikiLeaks Release Harms Public Interest. Unpublished raw data. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2010/12/08/most-say-wikileaks-release-harms-public-interest/