According to its website, WikiLeaks is “a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists. We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices” (http://wikileaks.ch/).
WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, are under investigation by the United States government for espionage. Using the terms of the Patriot Act, a federal magistrate signed an order on January 4, 2011, that required Dynadot, the domain registrars for WikiLeaks, to release to the government all information it holds on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Twitter has likewise been ordered to provide all the information it has on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. The issue is whether or not WikiLeaks has deliberately tried to undermine the security of the United States by publishing documents that, while being declassified, are not sanitized and whose contents could negatively affect efforts to keep the United States and its citizens safe.
So, here’s the question: is it morally permissible for me to use WikiLeaks?
On the one hand, one could argue that WikiLeaks is an online, free access source of information, which is open and available to the public. It may be the case that some of that information is sensitive, but that is not my responsibility. If there is an ethical concern here, either in regards to how the information is obtained or whether or not it should be made public, it is not an ethical issue for me as a user because I am using the material post factum. It is WikiLeaks which must decide what its ethical practices are. Even if there is some truth to the charge that it has veered away from its stated mission of exposing information that would reveal “suppressed and censored injustices” and has posted information that has nothing to do with injustices but is apparently concerned only to embarrass governments and/or government and non-government officials by publishing documents that are highly sensitive and/or that complicate the relations among nations and/or businesses, that is not an argument that my use of WikiLeaks is morally forbidden. Like any other source for research, I should be able to use it as long as I cite it accurately as a source. What if fellow students or professional colleagues are availing themselves of that resource but I, thinking I am taking the moral high ground, opt not to? I am only putting myself at a marked disadvantage, perhaps even an almost insurmountable one, because I deliberately turn away from information that could make my arguments more cogent and germane. Therefore it is at least morally permissible to use WikiLeaks.
On the other hand, one could argue that WikiLeaks is not simply releasing information from unnamed sources that reveals corruption in government and/or business, despite its mission statement. It has a subversive element that seems to delight in defying the need for secrecy in government and in business. What, for example, was the purpose of revealing the secrets of Scientology? Such revelation hardly qualifies as exposing corruption and unethical behavior. There is some material on WikiLeaks, such as the Afghan War documents, that reveals information about military operations that have the potential of putting our military personnel in grave personal danger. In 2009 WikiLeaks posted 251,00 State Department documents that do not black out the names of foreign activitists and dissenters who spoke to US diplomats, thus putting their lives in danger because of the hostile environments in which they live. Although it could be argued that some of what WikiLeaks has posted is ethically permissible, perhaps even ultimately harmless, there are other postings whose intention is suspect. How is one to distinguish between important information and gossip or prejudice? Further, how can one rely on WikiLeaks to avoid the trap of sensationalism in order to market its product? The organization itself is international and very fluid, with people coming and going. How then can it manage proper safeguards to ensure that what it posts will do no harm? This is especially an issue given that WikiLeaks has not yet published an ethical code to govern its editorial policy as regards to fairness, accuracy, completeness, and fairness. Since, therefore, WikiLeaks’ postings reveal intentions that are manifestly hostile rather that in the public interest and since using the site gives the impression of its legitimacy, as can be claimed by WikiLeaks on the basis of the hit count, then using WikiLeaks for any purpose is not morally permissible.
What do you think?