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December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks Hearing Should Cover Human Rights Implications

Washington, DC – Today as the House Judiciary Committee prepares for its hearing on the legal and constitutional questions raised by WikiLeaks’s recent disclosure of classified State Department cables, Human Rights First is urging lawmakers to include in their review the actions of private companies and government officials and their implications for fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech, association, and Internet freedom more broadly.  “Whether one views Julian Assange as a hero or a villain, and whether the information WikiLeaks released helps or hurts the United States, his actions, and the government and corporate responses to them, raise issues that transcend the particulars of this case.  We are concerned that, in its zeal to cripple WikiLeaks, the United States government and U.S. corporations are taking steps that could undermine the rule of law and restrict fundamental rights,” wrote Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr.  In her letter, Massimino acknowledged that WikiLeaks’s decision to publish classified information has triggered justified concerns about the safety of innocent people, disclosure of whose names might put them in danger, but she warned that a series of actions taken in the wake of the classified document dump may cause even greater lasting damage. For example, she asked Conyers to consider how government pressure on companies to force WikiLeaks off of the Internet and out of existence without a clear indication that it has broken the law will impact human rights activists, particularly those who rely on a free and open Internet to do their work. “The Internet is a lifeline for people living under repression, an invaluable tool for opening up closed societies. In many countries where there is no independent media and where civil society groups are under threat, the only public square open to dissenting voices is the virtual one,” wrote Massimino. “Pressure on companies is no less troubling when it comes from the U.S. government.” With respect to the role and actions of private companies, Massimino recognized that companies have the right to make business decisions, but they should not become proxy censors or otherwise help the government restrict Internet freedom—at least not without an extremely compelling reason to do so. Given the stakes, companies should have clear and transparent policies for decision-making when governments request them to censor information on the web, and these policies should be weighted heavily on the side of preserving Internet freedom. “Make no mistake: human rights activists around the world are paying attention to the government crackdown on WikiLeaks and to the acquiescence of American companies,” Massimino cautioned. “These activists see an important ally in their struggle, the United States government, undercutting its own ability to lead on this issue. They fear that their own governments will use the American example to justify restricting Internet freedom, and that companies, having caved to pressure from the U.S. government, will see little reason not to acquiesce to pressure from their governments.”

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