Privacy vs Freedom of Speech: Wikileaks

By | December 9, 2010

The Pirate Party of Canada has asked it’s members to vote on its stance towards the Wikileaks discussion. In most cases, the PPoC requests its members to have their own opinion, and, if ever elected, to represent their constituents before representing the party. The PPoC only has a unified stance on matters of copyright law, privacy, and free speech. The Wikileaks issue definitely falls under this category, and the party therefore needs to make a collective decision. Here, I am publishing my personal stance on the issue, regardless of the decision they make.

Every human being should have a right to privacy. If we wish to keep any detail about ourselves secret, we should have the right to do so. Legal or illegal, moral or immoral, if we don’t want some piece of data to be public knowledge, the right to privacy is paramount.

We wave this right as soon as we tell anyone our secret. Whether it is a family member, a close friend, a stranger, or everyone on Facebook, the secret is no longer ours to keep. By telling the person that secret, we have given them the right to maintain the secret, or to pass it on or publish it however they deem fit. We can request that they keep the secret, but we cannot demand it. However, that person still has the same right to privacy that we originally had. If only two of us know the secret, we both have the right to protect that secret. No-one should be able to forcibly take that secret from us without our consent.

Once a sufficient number of people knows the secret, the probability that their collective privacy will be greater than the right to gossip approaches zero. “Private knowledge” vs “public knowledge” is not a binary distinction. One person knowing our secret does not make the secret “public.” However, it means that we no longer have the soul ability to keep it private.

The other side of the coin is the responsibility to protect individual privacy. Many professional and government organizations have access to individual data about us that we may want to keep secret. Our doctors, nurses, and medical staff, our accountants and lawyers, our banks, tax agencies, and passport authorities, our driver’s license, health care, and motor vehicle registries all have access to data that they require, but we have the right to protect. They are responsible for protecting that individual data on our behalf. If they fail, data becomes public that should not be public.

So far, I’ve been talking about individual privacy. Privacy does not apply to corporations or governments. They should be held accountable to the individuals in the world, they should be required to operate transparently and openly. They are responsible to maintain the privacy of their employees, members, clients, and customers, but have no right to privacy as a single corporate entity.

Once data is made public, the right to publish that data trumps the right to privacy. This is freedom of speech. Any individual or organization who has access to data has the right to publish the data. The right to free speech does not trump the right to privacy, however, once privacy has been given up, the right to free speech is stronger.

The Wikileaks fiasco violates all of these principles. The private data of individuals was compromised. Government organizations were not operating transparently. Government organizations failed in their responsibility to protect the private data of individuals in their care. Freedom of speech was violated when both governments and corporate entities that should have been completely disinterested oppressed the publisher of the data.

I’d like to emphasize this point: Government organizations failed in their responsibility to protect the private data of individuals in their care. The failure rests squarely on the shoulders of the governments in question. Rather than attacking one (of many) publisher of the information, the governing body is obligated to fix their internal processes. Further, the corporate entities that are attacking Wikileaks should be focusing on this real culprit, not the publisher.

One less relevant note: it is true that the right to freedom of speech can be applied immorally. Consider the celebrity publications of today: the paparazzi are, by most accounts, disgustingly immoral. They violate the right to individual privacy (such violation should be illegal), but have the right to publish information once obtained. Wikileaks may (arguably) be immoral, but they are not so immoral as the paparrazzi that killed and photographed Princess Diana. Why is Wikileaks being persecuted while celebrity gossip rags are running free?

One thought on “Privacy vs Freedom of Speech: Wikileaks

  1. John

    To quote Benjamin Franklin:

    “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”

    Thing with secrets is, once someone else knows, its not a secret. I have been going back and fourth about the wikilinks thing. Your post gives some good insight that I need to consider.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *