Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

WikiLeaks and the Internet: Ushering in an Era of Corporate Censorship

Melissa Steffan


July 27, 2012

By Melissa Steffan 

Since 2010, one name has been on our lips in every discussion of government secrecy and freedom of information: WikiLeaks. The online whistle-blowing organization challenged the journalistic establishment in 2010 when it published the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs and the State Department cables. Facilitated by leaks from Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, these classified, government documents regarding U.S. military operations in the Middle East comprised the largest document leak in history. 

Yet, in the two years since the first War Logs were released, there have been no explosive consequences in U.S. diplomatic affairs or in military operations overseas. Even more shockingly, there has been no legal action by the government against either WikiLeaks or the New York Times. However, the actions the government did pursue imply a grave future for the freedom of information. Because the government chose to press charges only against Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, it opened up the Internet era to corporate censorship, in which corporations share the power in regulating the press.

In the Supreme Court’s 1971 Pentagon Papers ruling (New York Times Co. v United States), justices determined that the government could not enjoin the Times from publication of the Pentagon papers, but that government censorship could be justified in cases of “grave and irreparable” danger. Although the Pentagon Papers ruling leaves open an avenue for government action against the press, the government did not need to test that ruling in order to take action against WikiLeaks in 2010. 

The government limited its response to post-publication action versus pre-publication censorship, putting pressure on WikiLeaks in implicit, extralegal ways to meet the demands of news in the Internet era. This includes a more aggressive stance toward potential sources, intended to stop leaks before they even reach the media. According to the New York Times, the Obama Administration has been heavy-handed in its use the Espionage Act of 1917 against government whistle-blowers, invoking it more often than all previous administrations combined. 

But the government’s action against WikiLeaks also appears to include corporate censorship. Though it has never been proven that the government requested organizations like PayPal and Amazon to refuse service to WikiLeaks, their actions certainly affected WikiLeaks’ financial viability and the organization’s corresponding fall from the spotlight. Moreover, these actions raise questions about the future of free speech in an Internet world controlled not by governments, but by corporations. 

The WikiLeaks case indicates that the Internet era makes it more dangerous than before to be an individual whistle-blower; meanwhile, it simultaneously increases the prospect of private censorship for media organizations without significant institutional history. Online media outlets’ biggest contender is not the government, but a company with the power effectively to silence disagreeable content. 

And it does the First Amendment no justice for citizens to think the case is closed simply because the government chose not to take legal action against WikiLeaks as a whole. In fact, the extralegal pressures against WikiLeaks prove the opposite: This is just the beginning. In a 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Timothy Wu argues that Americans should be more wary of corporate monopolies, because “it is their decisions that dictate, effectively, who gets heard.” Whether or not the government places pressure on these corporate giants, they represent the new enforcers of public opinion. 

As a result of this new media reality, Americans must take greater care to protect the online freedom of news and information. Although both Manning and WikiLeaks acted unlawfully, the government also has failed to act justly; as a result, journalists at every organization with an online presence are in more danger of censorship. 

The future of the freedom of information in the Internet era now lies in the hands of both corporations and individuals, not necessarily the government or legal precedents. Perhaps WikiLeaks already is, in its own way, a new standard for dealing with government document leaks in the 21st century. The case did not need to reach the Supreme Court for the government to exact the desired effect: the decline of the WikiLeaks publishing juggernaut and a warning to all would-be leakers. 

—Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. 

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