Thursday, December 9, 2010

Freedom of speech for some, sometimes

I'm sick at the moment, so this might come across as more of a rant than a well thought out argument.

It seems to me, after reading a lot of recent anti-WikiLeaks news that there is a problem with free societies: They are run by regular people who are generally good at the art of politics and/or administration. There is no barrier in a free society designed to stop people who do not believe in the ideals of that society from rising to the top. In fact, they are often advantaged by not having to care about the society's rules.

Joe Lieberman and Sarah Palin, and Julia Gillard, among others, have seized on #cablegate as an opportunity to talk down the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In the case of Gillard, while I find it appalling that someone with so little respect for freedom of speech represents Australia, it is somewhat understandable, as Australia has never had particularly strong protections of our freedom of speech. The high court in fact will only recognise a limited right to freedom of political speech.

But the United States is different. The 1st amendment to their constitution reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
 That's pretty clear to me.

Palin, however, thinks that Assange should be taken down like a terrorist, claiming that he can't be a member of the press and therefore have any freedom. She ignores his personal right to freedom of speech, and the fact that journalists are not defined as people who publish inoffensive puff pieces about what's growing in your fridge. Some Americans have called for him to be tried for treason, failing to notice that treason is a crime committed by a citizen against their own country, and Assange is not American.

Unfortunately, people like Palin and Lieberman just consider government to be a vehicle through which their careers and power can grow. If the U.S. just happened to be a fascist society or a socialist society, they would be exactly the same. They are pushing agendas of convenience; Whatever actions match their whimsical thoughts on a topic should be possible. They don't feel restrained by the fact that their country was founded with explicit protections against what they are trying to do.

I would just like to put out there one more fact that is being glossed over: Despite teams of lawyers working on finding something to charge Assange with, the only reason he is possibly going to be extradited to Sweden is because of what appears to be a smear campaign in the form of a molestation investigation. There is nothing else with which he has been charged or can be said to be suspected of committing. Assange may have committed an act that looks dodgy to some, but without being able to point at a law that has been broken, any attacks against him are unfounded.

I understand that there are others behind WikiLeaks, as there are unsung heroes behind any cause. Assange, however, is the face of WikiLeaks. I consider him to be my hero. Not specifically for releasing the documents of #cablegate etc., which are generally not that interesting, but for highlighting to the world what kind of reactions to expect when freedom of speech is really put to the test. It distinguishes, like nothing else I have seen, the people who actually believe in civil liberties from those who merely don't oppose them until they become inconvenient.

An argument from people who don't understand civil liberties that I really can't stand is "If you haven't done anything wrong, then you shouldn't have anything to hide." It is wrong on so many levels. I won't try to be exhaustive, but:
  1. it ignores the imbalance of power between those who are allowed to see what is being hidden and those whose privacy is being invaded,
  2. it assumes that nobody in power is ever corrupt
  3. it assumes that there is nothing that can legally be done would still want to be kept secret, such as the purchasing of presents, acts taking place in a bedroom/bathroom, or just that some things are just nobody's freaking business, e.g. my best friend, more than a decade after finishing high school, still won't tell me what score he earned. It annoys me, but that's his right.
That said, these are personal rights. Governments should be transparent to their citizens, otherwise there is no way for the citizens to accurately know who to replace come election time. When the U.S. military shot a whole bunch of civilians from a helicopter, because they didn't take the time to properly identify the supposed enemy, that could have remained secret... and nothing would have changed. With that information becoming public, you would expect that there would be some procedural changes, because without them, the civilian head of the military can expect to be replaced at the next election.

I understand that there is a need for operational secrecy in many circumstances, but unless there is a reasonable timeline for everything that the government does to eventually become public, then the government shouldn't be doing it. If the government isn't doing something wrong, then they have nothing to hide. And if they are doing something wrong, then the public needs to know.

Democracy is predicated on people having relevant information on which to base their choice for leaders. Julian Assange has helped highlight areas where information has been incorrectly withheld, and just as importantly, he has highlighted the people who would incorrectly withhold information from the public.

Anyway, it's good to see a groundswell of organisations, including the Pirate Party hosting the #cablegate documents, and for every mirror or payment processor that is shut down, more spring up.

If you really want to help make a difference, then join your local Pirate Party as an alternative that won't dither about civil liberties and only endorse them when convenient.