Julian Assange made a name for himself exposing the secrets of governments and business. His Wikileaks project caused embarrassment and, some say, threatened the lives of people and the security of governments and nations.
For that, the US declared him a fugitive from justice. Upon arrest on unrelated sexual assault charges, he faced extradition proceedings.
Now Assange is getting a taste of something like his own medicine. He's sued to stop publication of his unauthorized biography. Though it was to be based on interviews he gave with this in mind, he now claims to have withdrawn his permission. He says publication is a breach of contract. Maybe he could also file a claim for invasion of privacy. Now that would be something.
The internet does a lot for us. It helps us communicate, makes our jobs easier and more efficient, and entertains us. It also cures our almost insatiable "need to know." Information about practically anyone and anything is at our fingertips.
Sometimes knowing too much - and sharing too much - isn't necessarily a good thing for anyone.
In case you've never heard of it or don't know what it is, WikiLeaks is a whistleblower web site. It's been a controversial site even before it went live, but things really perked-up in 2010. WikiLeaks published thousands of sensitive, often confidential and secret, documents by and from the US government.
The documents included items like US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as US diplomatic communications (or cables) on foreign affairs. Needless to say, these and other leaks didn't make the US intelligence community very happy.
Reactions to WikiLeaks' activities came shortly after the release of the diplomatic cables:
- WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning, aUS Army intelligence worker who's believed to be the source of most of the leaked information, may face federal criminal charges for conspiring to steal government property
- A federal judge ordered Twitter to give federal prosecutors information from the Twitter accounts of Assange and Manning
- Manning faces a court-martial
To top it all off, US lawmakers are working on a new law inspired by WikiLeaks. If passed, the SHIELD Act (it stands for Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination) makes it a federal crime to publish information on the:
- Identity of a classified source or informant who's part of the US intelligence community
- Human intelligence activities of the US or any foreign government
It's pretty easy to understand why lawmakers want to protect information like this from going public. The question is, does such a law go too far? Does it trample a publisher's First Amendment rights to speech - or a reader's First Amendment right to read it? Maybe.
Under rules set out by the US Supreme Court, anyone who steals or otherwise unlawfully gets information may face criminal charges, like the possible theft charges against Assange and Manning. The First Amendment can't stop it.
However, there's no such rule for those who publish it, even if the information was gotten illegally. The First Amendment protects the publication.
And, the First Amendment includes the right to receive and read information - within certain boundaries, of course. Child pornography is illegal for both sender and receiver, for instance. But information like that published by WikiLeaks is not. And the SHIELD Act's attempt to make it illegal may go too far.
The SHIELD Act can't help the federal government penalize Assange or WikiLeaks for publishing materials before the law goes into effect. That would be an unconstitutional ex post fact law. It would only make future publications illegal.
What You Can Do
Whether you're for or against a law like the SHIELD Act, you should contact your elected officials in the US House of Representatives and Senate and give them your opinion.
Also, understand the information you post on the internet, on blogs and through Twitter. Just because it's available to you, doesn't mean it's OK to use, especially if it's classified or confidential.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can the government find out who donated money to Assange and WikiLeaks? Is it illegal to donate to sites like WikiLeaks?
- When can the government demand information from web sites like Twitter?
- Can I get into legal trouble if someone posts illegally obtained information on my web site without my permission?