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Friday, 31 December 2010

Wikileaks, Censorship and Privacy

Until recently I was under the assumption that "the right to privacy" was granted as part of Constitutional rights to a citizen. On further reading, however, I have found that explicit references to "the right to privacy" of an individual (or an entity) do not exist [ ref: legalserviceindia ] in the Indian Constitution. Upon web-trotting, I also found that the constitution of the "United States of America" also has no explicit reference [ ref: usconstitution.net ] to "the right to privacy." Interpretations of the Constitution, and therefore in terms of law, "the right to live" is assumed to include "the right to privacy."

In the interest of good governance, the public have "the right to information." In India, this is empowered by an act ( official manuscript ) passed by the parliament (in 2005.) For USA, the "Freedom of Information Act" (FOIA) passed in 1966 provides access to privileged information. Such acts provide a legal, authoritative and official channel to citizens enabling them receive information on request. In sharp contrast, governments also have an Official Secrets Act ( references ) which aid in limited circulation and censorship of sensitive information, broadly in the interest of governance and security. Interestingly, the United States of America does not have an Official Secrets Act, though the Espionage Act (ref: cornell) intends to secure military and defense information.

The Freedom of Press (ref: commentary, India ) is also empowered by the first amendment in the USA, while it is an act in India. Simplifying, freedom of press in modern society is allowed so long as the interests of the government and public security in a broad sense remain unaffected. Freedom of Information ( reference, pdf ) is upheld as an Internationally protected Human Right by the United Nations. The objective behind freedom of information is to ensure good governance. The United Nations hopes that freedom of information will help curb oppressive regimes and ensure human rights to the people of the world.

People do not want governments to invade their privacy. People have asked for governments to reveal information that was deemed classified to further their rights to better governance. The right to information, concerning an individual, might amount to invasion of the right to privacy of another. The same right to information, concerning government, under circumstances violating national security, may amount to espionage. It is fair to conclude that the delineation between the right to privacy and the right to information is unclear and therefore open to interpretation (or re-interpretation) in each context.

The information released by WikiLeaks was not done in a manner consistent with governmental release of information in the interest of the public. Furthermore, the information leaked by WikiLeaks included information pertaining communication across countries. Information released by WikiLeaks was not done on request by the people of the world. It is still unclear as to how the people of the world were meant to benefit.

The last release of contents of cables by WikiLeaks showed lack of adequate security measures of Information that was deemed classified. By simple reasoning, the initial reaction was to tighten security measures and improve practices. In a certain sense, WikiLeaks as an entity has invaded the privacy of the nations (primarily the USA,) and therefore citizens of those nations whose communication has leaked. International relations have been affected. Nations have been forced to react to the content of the "leaks." It is only logical that Nations provide accessible means to experience the right to information without affecting the right to privacy of individuals.

When content is obtained through unofficial means, possibly outside the framework provided by law, it is likely that some (or all) of the information is either incomplete, incorrect or outside the correct frame of context. It is time to establish a global framework to deal with such unprecedented leaks. Release of information outside channels established by government must be discouraged. The privacy of the individual is as valuable as the privacy of a government. When established procedure exists to call for information, and acts are being passed in countries to facilitate the same, efforts must be invested to ensure de-classification and right to information within the framework of governance. Encouraging right to information and promoting official channels that facilitate it will be in the right spirit.

WikiLeaks, in 2010, stands out as one of the largest unprecedented disclosures of information in volume and content. We must take adequate action to ensure that the repetition of a similar leak in the future can be dealt with, without affecting international relationships or threatening global security and peace. In this age, information (or misinformation) in itself could be deployed as a weapon to disturb or confuse nations and individuals equally. Information released without context can easily lead to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. In an age where we respect Intellectual Property Rights, disclosure of information without consent from the entities is invasion of privacy at the very least. As much as an individual considers access of one's own information by another without consent - an invasion of privacy, Governments representing people they govern do have similar rights to privacy.

Let us use information responsibly, respect everyone's right to privacy, freedom of expression and right to information.