How to fight cyberwars -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Dec 14, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column In WikiLeaks aftermath, an assault on free speech in which Gene writes: "The most important legacy of the WikiLeaks affair will almost surely be the rapidly escalating cyberwar that the group's renegade disclosures have sparked. If you think you're unaffected by unseen "battles" fought with keystrokes instead of bullets, you're wrong."

Hi, everyone, and welcome to our weekly gathering. Not the cheeriest of days, what with Amb. Richard Holbrooke's sudden passing. Yesterday's ruling by a conservative federal judge on the health-insurance mandate does not gladden my heart, although there does seem to be a growing consensus that the other two federal judges who have ruled on the issue -- declaring the mandate legal -- seem to be on more solid ground. Capitol Hill is still trying to finish tax legislation that, in the end, should please nobody  -- and that worsens the deficit considerably, but who's counting? There's one piece of good news, however: Chairman Michael Steele is running for another term at the helm of the GOP. That should gladden the heart of every columnist in town, because he's a one-man quote factory. Let's get started.

Oh, and for reference, today's column is about Wikileaks and my discomfort at seeing private companies -- Amazon, PayPal, etc. -- making decisions about whose speech is worthy and whose isn't.

Thank you for taking my question. I agree with you that corporations should not be able to limit or grant free speech rights. However, I dont think you provide much of a solution. Perhaps Assange is right in his critique of the American government. However, what do we do in cases when document leaks are politically or financially motivated ? Is there an alternative to always protecting state information?

The First Amendment is there to protect unpopular speech. (No protection is needed for speech that everyone welcomes, right?) That said, I am uncomfortable with Wikileaks' motivations. But I think the basic principle in these cases should be that it's the responsibility of the government to protect the information it needs to protect. And my question is whether we want executives of private companies making those decisions.

Mr. Robinson, The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." The Fourteenth Amendment applies the First Amendment to the states. Please explain how the First Amendment applies to private companies such as FaceBook and Twitter choosing (without government coercion) to limit speech on its website. Although we may disagree about the wisdom or propriety of FaceBook and Twitter limiting their customers' speech, how is this a legal matter involving the First Amendment?

You are right that if you want to play in Twitter's cyberspace, you have to play by Twitter's rules. For me, it becomes worrisome when internet companies have such reach that they are effective monopolies. In those cases, they begin to look like utilities that should be subject to certain public-interest rules, and maybe one of those rules should deal with their ability to make political judgments about speech.

How will the death of Richard Holbrooke affect Afghanistan/Pakistan policy? He was a giant in diplomacy - he'll be hard to replace.

It will make a bad situation worse. It's not that he was making much progress, given the situation. But if Afghanistan ever got to the point where a negotiated deal of some kind became possible and could make a real difference, Holbrooke was the guy to broker that deal.

Many supporters of the tax deal "compromise" say it should be approved by Congress because it's the best deal the Democrats will get from the Republicans before they take over the majority in January. But if it wasn't passed until then, how much worse could it get for the Democrats (and most Americans)? Would the Republicans really pass a bill that only extended tax cuts for the rich and cut estate taxes will not also extending them for the lower/middle classes or left out an extension of unemployment benefits? I don't see how much worse it could get because I can't imagine the Republicans cutting those elements out without most of America finally getting outraged as the rich got richer at the expense of the out-of-work or the deficit.

Unbind your mind. I see a bill not just extending all the tax cuts -- for middle-class and wealthy alike -- but making them all permanent. I see a shorter extension of unemployment benefits, with cuts made elsewhere in programs for the poor and/or unemployed. I see a serious attempt to eliminate the estate tax altogether. And I see Republicans claiming, meanwhile, that Democrats are the ones who made everybody's taxes go up.

If in fact Wikileaks asked governmental agencies for assistance in redacting " sensitive national security information," is it fair to claim the government could do nothing in regards to the publication of these leaks? And, what is nihilistic about publishing info that makes transparent what the professionals in our government think and say to one another? As to your greater point that internet corps. should not be censors, you are right on.

I've been a journalist all my adult life, and I believe in transparency with all my heart and soul. I have to acknowledge, though, that if I were trying to conduct foreign policy for the United States, I'd want to be able to keep some diplomatic conversations confidential. As I said, the responsibility ultimately rests on the government to keep its secrets. 

When a federal attorney questions whether or not to read the NYTimes articles on the diplomatic cables because they may lose their security clearance we have jumped the Constitutional shark. Have we become Iran? Russia? What happened to the country I knew in 1999? Before Bush v. Gore, the Patriot Act, TSA, domestic surveillance and now government censorship? What has happened to America and our values?

Well, I think the idea that some federal officials shouldn't read the stories or risk their clearances is stupid and absurd. Once it's out there, it's out there. Come on.

Any thoughts on the attack on the Prince of Wales and his wife where they smashed their car windows and yelled "Off with their heads!" to them?

Shocking. Totally uncalled-for. This is the heir to the throne, after all. Unimaginable that he would be driven straight through such a violent scene. (But the fact that they yelled "Off with their heads"? Priceless.)

Help me understand: Is this truly a free speech case or a states secrets case? Assange and company are free to express their opinions for or against the US or any other government. That's free speech. Wikileaks has obtained and released "confidential"? memos of the State Department. Because a US Army private released them, does that give Wikileaks carte blanche to disseminate this information?

I think it probably does. If it doesn't, then you'd have to conclude that the then-editor of the New York Times could have been arrested for publishing the Pentagon Papers, or that Ben Bradlee could have been jailed for The Washington Post's Watergate revelations, right? I believe there's a world of difference between Wikileaks and those two great newspapers -- wer're journalists, and I think Julian Assange is an activist. But as far as the law is concerned, I think that's just semantics. Publication is publication.

The first amendment only protects you from the government restricting your free speech. Corporations do it all the time. The Washington Post decides that some op-eds and letters to the editors are more worthy than others, for example. Now if the government threatened the companies to make them do it, that would be a problem. Or even if the companies did it because they were afraid of the government without any overt threats. But I think they were concerned about their customer base disapproving.

You make a good point, and in the process I think you illustrate mine. Were the companies worried about government disapproval, or even potential government action against them? I agree that this would be a problem, but we don't know whether it's the case. What if Pfc. Bradley Manning had called Julian Assange on a cell phone to discuss leaking all this material. Should Verizon cancel Manning's account?

BUT THEY'RE PRIVATE COMPANIES -- and maybe they're also smart enough to know that a lot of customers (not your preferred government-mandated purchasers, but actual customers) would prefer that they don't support people who are looking to hurt the U.S. I know that you and yours find patriotism downscale and primitive, but not all of us out here feel the same way.

Give me a freaking break. I'll put my patriotism up against yours every day of the week. Utilities are private companies, too, and we subject them to rules about access. You might object -- but that's not patriotism, it's some kind of Ayn Rand fantasy.

You suggest that these cuts could have been permanent, but how could that possibly be accomplishded short of a Constitutional amendment? Adding the word permanent to a GOP sponsored bill is no more binding than calling the Bush tax cuts temporary. The GOP would certainly claim that the Dems caused their taxes to go up, but would it have stuck? Is it possible that the public would have seen through that sham claim for what it is? The problem is that we will never know because of the cowering mindset of the Dems that whatever the GOP says will stick, so they better cut the best deal they can before those nasty names start flying in their direction.

You're right that the word "permanent" has no meaning in connection with tax policy, which is always changeable. In this case, the better description would have been "longer lasting." I believe the GOP would have made the tax claim stick. Things didn't have to be this way. But the time for the Democrats to lose their "cowering mindset" -- which many of them indeed had -- was before the election. They had public opinion on their side and could have won the argument -- and a better deal. At this point, though, come on, it's not just GOP rhetoric that they have to battle, it's also the ticking of the clock. Six months ago, there was a better deal to be had. Six months from now? No way.

It seems to me that the web hosting companies aren't doing anything more than they would be required to do under the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) if say WikiLeaks was posting bootleg music or movies. Why should the government's classified cables receive less protection than the latest single from Jay-Z?  As someone who owns intellectual property yourself, how would you feel if WikiLeaks posted the full PDF version of your latest book?  Perhaps instead of classifying documents, they should start copyrighting them.

Maybe they should. It's true that copyrighted material has greater legal protection on the Web than government material. But can the government be an "author" in that sense? I doubt it.

Why are you "uncomfortable with WikiLeaks motivations"? WikiLeaks advocates for transparency and accountability. Shouldn't you as a journalist embrace those values?

I do embrace those values, but I see a real difference between the journalistic impulse and the activist impulse. I think of Assange as more of a source than a journalist -- and every reporter quickly learns that you have to know whether your source has an ax to grind. Perhaps this makes me a journalistic chauvinist; I plead guilty.


And with that confession, my time is up for today. Thanks or participating, and I hope to see you again next time.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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