Philosophy of Information: The ethics of WikiLeaks

by Luciano Floridi 

The Wikileaks phenomenon is intricate, but suppose we reduce its ethical evaluation to two questions: is whistleblowing ethical, even when motivated by resentment and the desire to harm its target? And is Wikileaks’ facilitation of whistleblowing ethical, even if it might put at risk innocent people? A deontologist, convinced that telling the truth and never lying is an absolute must, is likely to appreciate whistleblowing as the right thing to do, independently of the reasons behind it. And a consequentialist may support Wikileaks as a means to maximise the welfare of the largest number of people, especially if risks are minimized by censuring sensitive information. So current answers in the mass media seem to converge: Wikileaks is a good thing. I am not entirely convinced.
Confidential communication is a three-player game – sender, receiver and referent – in which sender and receiver trust each other. The receiver, not the referent, trusts and holds responsible the sender for the truth of what is communicated about the referent. The referent may know about such communication and may even easily guess its contents (imagine a letter of reference), but there is confidentiality only if the receiver, not the referent, has access to the information exchanged. Accountability is present and connects sender and receiver. Whistleblowing disrupts such a three-player game. In the new, metagame the sender is the whistleblower through Wikileaks, the whole world is the potential receiver, and the referents are the players in the previously confidential communication. This is problematic. The relation of confidentiality of the original game is shattered: the new referents are also among the new world-receiver, which now holds the old sender responsible for what is communicated, not only for its truth (if you say that the moon is made of blue cheese, that is false, if I report that you said so then what I say is true). The metagame reinstates, somewhat hypocritically, the same rules it criticises: Wikileaks, quite rightly but inconsistently, defends the anonymity and confidentiality of its sources, which are likely to make an exception about the information transparency of their own identity, frowning upon MetaWikileaks, with leaks on leaks. Finally, the relation of accountability is missing. In the metagame, the whistleblower and Wikileaks might be good-willed and well-intentioned but are not bounded by professional codes of conduct or legal requirements. So the receiver, which is also the referent, is at the mercy of the sender. Wikileaks knows this and that is why it “whitemails” the world, i.e., it blackmails it by threatening to disclose even more damaging information through its “insurance file”, should anything happens to Wikileaks or its spokesman Julian Assange.Wikileaks itself shows that, without confidential communication, there would often be no communication at all. Thus, any argument in favour of Wikileaks to the effect that most of the information was already public or suspected anyway misses the point, which is that Wikileaks may undermine the possibility of future frank communication. Imagine an Academic Wikileaks that regularly publishes confidential information about the assessment of grants, the evaluation of book proposals, the reviewing of journal submissions, letters of reference for candidates and so forth. After the initial embarrassment, the whole system would come to a standstill.            Finally, “information liberation” arguments are not universalisable. The new Wikileaks’ About file (retrieved 12.12.10, holds that “publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people”. Yet this is naïve at best. First, because the value of information is not absolute, but relative to its use. Judas’ kiss tells the truth about the identity of the kissed, but it hardly creates a better society. And second, because the value of the use of information is not absolute either, but relative to the goals that one is seeking to achieve, and the sort of possible world that one is trying to bring about. This is why personal details about religious and sexual orientations must be protected. Information “macht frei”, but also doubles as a necessary condition for discrimination.            The lesson is simple: facilitating whistleblowing is morally good not absolutely, but only if the whistleblowing itself is morally good; and the latter is morally good not absolutely, but only if the specific cause it fosters is morally good. So the two conditionals call for an explicit, ethical commitment.  And Wikileaks old About file (archived 10.03.08, acknowledged this much: “Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact.” Unfortunately, this strong and explicit ethical statement has disappeared (Wikileaks is not a Wiki, so old versions are no longer available from its website). Luckily, so far Wikileaks has picked up causes judged by most morally good. Support for Wikileaks would quickly vanish if the leaks undermined a cause such as the democratic movement in China. Yet the real ethical debate must concern the moral value of the causes supported by Wikileaks. And the concern remains: those who defend accountability should themselves be accountable. Who will blow the whistle on the whistleblowers, if their behaviour will become unethical?