Two weeks ago Birgitta Jonsdottir, the self-styled activist Member of Parliament from Iceland and central figure in the important and ongoing Twitter-WikiLeaks cases, was in Ottawa. We sent her a tweet, got a quick reply, then met to talk about whistle-blowers, privacy and the role of the free press in the age of the Internet.
Ms. Jonsdottir is one of the co-producers of Collateral Murder, a selectively edited video that documents a U.S. military helicopter gunning down two Reuters staff and several others in the streets of Baghdad. The distribution of the video over the Internet in April 2010 shed light on events that the U.S. military had not disclosed and marked the beginning of WikiLeaks’ campaign to release what would be the largest cache of U.S. classified material the world has ever seen.
Over the course of the next year, WikiLeaks joined together with five of the world’s most respected news organizations – The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Speigel, Le Monde and El Pais – to publish material that wreaked havoc with the routine conventions of journalism, diplomacy and war. The near simultaneous publication of the material also set the global news agenda three more times in 2010: (1) during the release of the Afghan and (2) Iraq war logs in July and October, respectively, and (3) a cache of diplomatic cables starting in late November.
The modern day whistle-blowing campaign garnered a number of prestigious awards for journalistic excellence, including Readers’ Choice in Time magazine’s Person of the Year (Julian Assange) (2010), International Piero Passetti Journalism Prize of the National Union of Italian Journalists, Italy (2011) and the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism, Australia (2011), among many others.
It also unleashed the wrath of the U.S. government and a wave of recrimination and reprisals against WikiLeaks, and its key figures. Some literally called for its enigmatic frontman, Julian Assange, to be assassinated. In December 2010, Senator Joe Lieberman, Chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, pressured Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and everyDNS to cut-off resources essential to WikiLeaks’ survival: including servers, data storage, domain names and online payments. Apple removed a WikiLeaks app from the iTunes store shortly thereafter.
The actions did not kill WikiLeaks, but they did cause its donor funding to plummet by an estimated 90 per cent.
The publication of classified material by WikiLeaks triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the source of the leaks. That quickly led to the arrest of U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, in May 2010. It also issued a series of “secret orders” to popular U.S. search and social media sites in a more or less successful bid to access information about people of interest to its WikiLeaks investigation.
Birgitta Jonsdottir is one of those people. So, too, are Mr. Assange, WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Applebaum and Dutch hacktivist Ron Gongrijp. Their struggle to know which Internet companies received the DOJ’s “secret orders,” and to prevent the disclosure of information about them, raise fundamental questions about state secrets, transparency and privacy rights. They also cut to the heart of journalism in light of how social media like Twitter and Facebook are now routinely used by journalists to access sources, share information, and generally to create and circulate the news.
The Guardian recognized the significance of the Twitter-WikiLeaks cases last month by including Ms. Jonsdottir, Mr. Assange, Mr. Applebaum and Twitter’s chief legal counsel, Alex MacGillvray, on its list of 20 “champions of the open Internet.” The latter was on the list because Twitter was the only Internet company to challenge the DOJ’s “secret orders” (not “court authorized warrants”), while others appear to have rolled-over and shut-up.
Twitter won a small victory in January 2011 when it obtained a court order allowing it to tell Jonsdottir and the rest of the parties involved that Justice wanted information about their accounts. Whatever hope was raised by that ruling, however, was dashed by a blunt district court ruling in the second case 10 months later. It ruled users of commercial social media platforms have no privacy rights because these companies’ business models are based entirely on maximizing the collection and sale of subscriber information. As such, Jonsdottir and the others involved in the case “relinquished any reasonable expectation of privacy” the moment they clicked on Twitter’s terms of service.
At the end of the legal line, Twitter reluctantly handed over a slew of information about their Internet service device numbers, registration pages, connection records, length of service and so on.