Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, John Abell, New York Bureau Chief for Wired, discusses the recent form of cyber warfare against companies who are perceived to be harming Wikileaks, and Marcia Hoffman, Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney, weighs in on the first amendment ramifications of shutting Wikileaks out of funding, or prosecuting it for releasing sensitive information.
Call it war, call it "Operation Payback," call it crime, the financial infrastructure of the world is being hacked by Wikileaks supporters who are upset at Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, and Amazon for refusing to process donations to Wikileaks.
In an attack that conveys just how dependent our 21st century marketplace is on internet commerce, holiday shoppers are getting slower load times and rejected credit cards. As a cherry on top, some hackers targetted Sarah Palin's website and disrupted her personal credit card accounts.
A 16 year-old Dutch boy was arrested today in connection with the attacks, but this is clearly not the work of one individual.
Though she is a staunch champion of Wikileaks, Hoffman said she is disappointed with the approach.
My organization doesn't think that cyber vigilantism is the way to deal with this problem. We're talking primarily about a free speech debate here, and the way to have a free speech debate is to continue to talk about the actions you don't agree with, rather than try to shut them down. It's actually a fairly un-free speech thing to do.
But Abell said that the decentralized nature of Wikileaks and of the Internet itself makes this type of behavior almost impossible to monitor.
This is not Julian Assange unleashing his hordes of clone warriors at the snap of a finger, you know, he's not some kind of Batman movie villan. These are people who tend to be opportunistic and prankish, and they've kind of made their point, and we'll see if they keep it up.
At heart, Hoffman says this is about access to the information Wikileaks is providing—and if some of the most powerful corporations refuse to work with the site because of controversial or unpopular messages, then those messages may never get out:
Intermediaries are absolutely necessary to ensure that free speech online is robust and strong, and when they're afraid to stand up for their users' right to free speech and help them get that speech out, then users don't have much of a right at all.
It's still possible to donate to hate causes through Mastercard and Visa, so their moral highground claim is pretty weak. Abell said it's up to the companies who they decide to do business with, but they're walking down a dangerous road.
Once you start getting into the business of deciding who is evil and start cutting down trees, soon there's no forest left, and everybody is out there in the cold. Which is why when you have a commercial decision to make, you want to be very careful when there's a political aspect to it. Sometimes it's better to be brave and take your hits in the short term than to be cowardly and look at your bottom line.
No legal action has been brought against Wikileaks for releasing the Iraq War Logs or the diplomatic cables. Personally, Assange is fighting rape allegations, which he claims is a thinly veiled smear campaign to punish him for his work as head of Wikileaks.
Abell and Hoffman both think we will see attempts around the world to pass laws that try limit Wikileaks and organizations like it, and these laws may have far reaching consequences for the freedom of information. For Hoffman, "this is the biggest attack on free speech that we will likely see in our lifetimes. If you care about free speech you should care about this very much."