Sunday, December 5, 2010
On Wikileaks and government's right to privacy
The Wikileaks' now-famous US diplomatic cable dump has stirred a whole new round of debate on what’s private and what’s public in a democracy.
The big question, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson and George Packer have raised, is do governments have a right/priviledge to privacy? If democratically elected governments are essentially an extension of their citizens, then don’t the citizens have a right to know all their private thoughts, discussions and correspondence?
I tend to disagree. Yes, governments are made for us and by us but they are entities in themselves too with a certain identity of their own. Otherwise, we would never be able to hold them to account as all their actions would essentially be the actions of each and every citizen of the country. If we were to say that they had no separate identity of their own, then in essence, they could never be brought to books.
As an individual, I have a right to private conversations and correspondence before I act publicly. And a lot of these private discussions, opinions and conversations may be contradictary, difficult, unsavoury and questionable according to the prevailing moral standards of the time - but it is only through these contradictions that I am able to arrive at a position that I am ready to assume publicly on issues. Governments, too, have that right.
However, on certain occasions, my privacy will be breached because doing so will be in the benefit of the community that I live in. But, as I live in a democracy, I hope that there will be a strong enough reason to do so, and as far as possible, it will be done through the right channels. Any democratically-elected government, too, deserves some degree of the same respect.
In this particular instance, Wikileaks - and the five newspapers involved - have played fast & loose with both these parameters. However, as Wikileaks has made its name out of this kind of conduct, let us focus our energies on it. There are three things that strike me about the what, why and how of Wikileaks' actions.
To begin with, Wikileaks has never attempted to use the right channels – the laws provided within the democratic set-up – to gain information about any government. Yes, it is difficult, painful and long-drawn to use these channels but they exist. However, Wikileaks has never been interested in using them. Instead, it has consistently used underhand, Robinhood-style ways to gain private information. To put it in plain ol' English, they have indulged in theft of the cables.
This in itself could be exonerated, if indeed we learnt something that could be used to take some conclusive steps forward. I am with George Packer when he says that this is not the case with Wikileaks' latest cable dump.
Richard Adams of the Guardian has listed seven of the most important revelations made by the cable dump till now. Let’s tackle them one by one.
Silvio Berlusconi 'profited from secret deals' with Vladimir Putin
What the cables tell us is that the US government suspected he might have profited so and was investigating him. His guilt itself remained inconclusive. And by revealing the investigations to the world before any conclusive evidence could be gathered, Wikileaks has done Berlusconi a favour. It is going to be tougher to pin him down since the investigations may never be finished now, and he is extremely good at riding out rumours about his corruption anyway.
The US pressured Spain over CIA renditions and Guantanamo Bay
What I understood from the cables is that the US diplomats had several conversations with the main public prosecutor of an important human rights case being fought in Spain. Yes, but the US government was not doing anything illegal – there were no kickbacks, frauds or bribery involved. So other than knowing that the US government tries to influence officials around the world - something that was not news in itself - we have not learnt anything particularly usable.
The scale of Afghan corruption is overwhelming
This might be news to Wikileaks and Adams, but the rest of us didn’t need a whole government machinery to be violated in order to learn that. There were enough media reports in the public domain suggesting the same.
Hillary Clinton queried Cristina Kirchner's mental health
So? Embarrassing, yes. Illegal, no. And honestly, after all the megalomaniacs we have seen become world leaders, I’d say it is better to keep tabs on the mental health status of all politicians.
The Bank of England governor played backroom politics
So he is not politically neutral and must go. But why punish the US government for it by compromising it? And is it a matter of earth-shattering importance justifying stealing and leaking of private documents?
The British government remains in thrall to the US
To be in thrall is one thing, but did the British government do anything illegal for the US government? Nothing in the cables suggest that.
US diplomats spied on the UN's leadership
This is the only potentially damaging revelation because it could amount to a breach of international human rights. But again, “could” is the operative word out here. We don’t know for sure yet. Besides, if the same investigation had revealed that some of them had "profited from secret deals" with Vladimir Putin - how would we then view the investigation?
None of the revelations show the US government actually doing anything technically illegal on which it could be brought to books. We have always known that government’s play games, use undue influence, meddle and indulge in espionage, and now we have evidence of it. But if the US government's actions are morally ambiguous but not illegal, where does that leave us in macro-terms?
Which brings me to the last point: the manner in which these cables have been dumped on to the world. Wikileaks didn't feel the need to sift through the documents itself and question what was indeed worth revealing instead of unleashing them all over the internet. If that destabalising international relations and/or the effectiveness of an entire government department - who cares? Certainly not Assange & Co.
Some would argue that it was an impossible task to sift through tens of thousands of cables. But if the government is an entity with some rights, and only the circumstances decided whether or not those rights can be violated - how did Wikipedia even know what the circumstances of the case were, if it hadn't actually gone through all the cables itself?
If any decent person was to find a gossip-ridden letter of mine doing the rounds, unless it contained a confession to murder by me, I would expect the person to return it back to me – not plaster it all over the Internet. Why should the US government expect any less?
Here's a profile of Julian Assange from his pre-cable dump days: No Secrets by Raffi Khatchadourian published on June 7, 2010.
In particular, I liked this quote: "Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution."