My onetime professor Jorge Castañeda—later better known as Mexico’s foreign minister under Vicente Fox—used to speak with grudging admiration about the “Economy of Repression” practiced by the long-reigning Partido Revolucionario Institucional. He used the phrase in a dual sense: It was repression carried out by economic means, as papers that strayed too far from the PRI line would suddenly find their lucrative government advertising revenue drying up, state-controlled suppliers jacking up prices, and PRI-linked union workers threatening strike. But it was also an economical (that is, a parsimonious)means of repression, operating indirectly and relatively invisibly, and allowing more heavy-handed mechanisms—the censor’s pen and the truncheon—to be used more sparingly.
Castañeda’s phrase has crossed my mind more than once over the past week, as we’ve witnessed an array of digital intermediaries and financial institutions cutting ties with Wikileaks in the wake of attacks on the controversial site by prominent politicians. Amazon booted the whistleblowing organization from its hosting service shortly after receiving a concerned call from the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Amazon officials say the timing is purely coincidental, but the company still won praise for the decision from a group of prominent senators. Visa and MasterCard—both recent beneficiaries of lobbying by the Obama administration—blocked donations to Wikileaks, as did online payment processor PayPal, explicitly citing a recent letter to Wikileaks from the State Department declaring the organization’s activities illegal. (Donations to the KKK, by contrast, are still allowed.)
Like many who generally favor greater transparency, I have serious reservations about the way Wikileaks operates. While it is clearly false to claim, as some have, that the site is dumping classified material online “indiscriminately,” I have serious doubts that the news value of much of the released material outweighs the potential security risks or the chilling effect on diplomacy. Nor do I have much sympathy with what appears to be Julian Assange’s “heighten the contradictions” strategy of forcing governments to clamp down on internal information sharing.
It would be far better if we didn’t have a system of endemic overclassification, so that genuinely sensitive material were not mixed in with routine reports available to thousands of contractors and fresh-faced junior military personnel. It would be better if whistleblowers within the Defense Department who tried working through internal channels did not face reprisals, as an oversight report recently found they too often do. And it would be better if traditional media outlets had been quicker to fill the niche Julian Assange’s organization now occupies.
Whatever concerns I might have about Wikileaks, however, I’m still more troubled to see political actors pressuring intermediary firms in an effort to throttle a media organization that has been convicted of no crime. Indeed, the State Department’s assertion notwithstanding, it’s not clear that Wikileaks could be convicted in light of the strong precedent set by the Pentagon Papers case. As a recent report from the Congressional Research Service put it:
We are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.
In the heady days of the 1990s, it was widely assumed that the global Internet was, by its nature, an anarchic zone of untrammeled speech inherently immune from the control of governments quite apart from any formal legal constraints on censorship. But as political scientist Henry Farrell, among other scholars, has observed:
[A] small group of privileged private actors can become “points of control”–states can use them to exert control over a much broader group of other private actors. This is because the former private actors control chokepoints in the information infrastructure or in other key networks of resources. They can block or control flows of data or of other valuable resources among a wide variety of other private actors.
The freedom of the global Internet comes with an increased dependence on globalized intermediaries, over whom political actors in large and valuable markets will typically exert enormous leverage. A dissident publication running its own press may have an incentive to resist that political pressure—but a multinational credit card company or hosting provider, for whom the publisher is a relatively insignificant source of revenue—will often find its bottom line better served by compliance. As Farrell notes, we’ve already seen a similar strategy pursued against offshore gambling sites, whose payment processors were threatened with litigation by ambitious prosecutors.
It’s a sobering validation of Friedrich Hayek’s famous dictum that to be controlled in our economic pursuits—perhaps now more than ever—means to be controlled in everything. Whatever you think of Wikileaks, the idea that a controversial speaker can be so effectively attacked quite outside the bounds of any direct legal process, thanks to the enormous leverage our government exerts on global telecommunications and finance firms, ought to provoke immense concern for the future of free expression online.