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Wikileaks and the Business of America

We care more about copyright "pirates" than national security.

By Will Offensicht  |  November 30, 2010

The rules governing the operation of the Internet are still in a state of flux.  Reuters reports that the US government has shut down a number of web sites which offered pirated goods:

Law enforcement officials said on Monday they had shut down 82 websites selling thousands of counterfeit and pirated goods in a move timed with the start of the online holiday shopping season.

"As of today -- what is known as 'Cyber Monday' and billed as the busiest online shopping day of the year -- anyone attempting to access one of these websites using its domain name will no longer be able to make a purchase," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters.

This move is welcomed by merchants and manufacturers who claim that traffic in counterfeit goods has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and put consumer safety at risk.  The New York Times reported that the web site crackdown also included web sites that gave away pirated music and movies:

In what appears to be the latest phase of a far-reaching federal crackdown on online piracy of music and movies, the Web addresses of a number of sites that facilitate illegal file-sharing were seized this week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

It seems that the government has taken an interest in suppressing illicit use of copyrighted material.  Cynics assume that the government is merely testing its power to shut down chunks of the Internet if and when it ever starts to become too threatening to the ruling elites but business leaders thought that the government's support of business-oriented web sites was a step in the right direction.

No Breakfast for Tiffany

Things haven't always gone the way of copyright holders of late, however, as the Supreme Court recently rejected Tiffany's appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of eBay.

Tiffany had sued eBay because counterfeit "Tiffany" goods are often available on the auction site.  Tiffany claimed that sales sites such as Amazon, Google, or eBay should be held liable when counterfeit goods are sold, even if they have no way to know which goods are counterfeit.  The First Sale Doctrine, of course, protects the right of owners of genuine Tiffany goods to resell them and to truthfully describe them as being Tiffany, and since no eBay employee ever lays eyes on the goods being auctioned, there's no way for them to know which is which.

The lower courts had ruled that eBay was not listing the counterfeit goods itself and so they were not liable.  The fact that eBay had spent a great deal of effort trying to keep counterfeit goods off its site might have weighed in the decision.

Take care of Assange, already!

What about Wikileaks?

Given that the government can shut down commercial web sites with or without a court order, what about Wikileaks?  News reports of all political persuasions are filling the air with juicy tidbits from the 250,000 diplomatic cables which were posted on the Wikileaks site.  These cables reveal background chatter between our diplomats and government officials all over the world which were supposed to be kept strictly private for at least a quarter-century.  These "private" observations about the personality and ethics of world leaders and their global minions are causing red faces in chancelleries everywhere.  For everyone in the diplomatic community to know that Ambassador So-and-so's wife is a drunk and Minister Somebody-else gossips like a mad fiend is one thing; to see it on TV screens everywhere is quite another.

Hillary Clinton is portraying the leak as an attack on the international community itself and Attorney General Eric holder assures us that those responsible will be brought to account.  This is hard to believe - Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have been slapping the face of the international community with rotting fishes for a long time, and nothing whatsoever has been done about it.

Ironically, the leaks are alleged to come from a data sharing network that was set up in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.  It was pretty clear that the various intelligence agencies were not sharing data.  Although the data which might have caught the panty-bomber before he got on the plane were not shared, the State Department network integrates data from a great many government databases.  With over 500,000 authorized users, it would appear that data were made more accessible than security considerations would have suggested.

Assange, the International Outlaw

By publicly revealing classified information, Mr. Assange has placed himself outside the protection of any law.  Under international law and protocol, he is not merely a spy, he is a stateless independent spy with no protecting power.

Thus, as happened frequently during the cold war, he could be expected to have an unfortunate car accident or even turn up knifed in a dark alley.  According to protocol, the world's police would traditionally frown solemnly and say "How sad!"  Serious powers protect their secrets by whatever means necessary, as the Washington Post points out:

Is the United States of America really powerless to stop a nomadic cyber-hacker - who sleeps on people's couches and changes his hair color to avoid surveillance - from causing enormous damage to our national security?  Apparently, in the age of Obama, we are.

Which nations don't protect their secrets?  Those who are so weak as to be unable to do so.  By the mere fact that Julian Assange is breathing oxygen, he is a living rebuke to the idea of America as, not merely a superpower, but as a power of any sort at all.

Even the French take drastic action when their military secrets are threatened: their secret agents sank Greenpeace's flagship in a neutral port rather than tolerate interference with or observation of their nuclear tests.  Being French, they botched their mission and got caught - but the ship still got sunk and the tests went ahead, though they were significantly delayed.  Despite international condemnation, the French had demonstrated that they did have national interests, knew what they were, and would at least attempt to defend them.

Does Barack Obama know that America has national interests and national secrets?  Does he consider them worth defending, or does he not?  Is he afraid that our secret agencies lack the competence to adequately yet privately take care of Wikileaks?  If the latter, we sympathize with his problem - but that's all the more reason to concentrate on fixing it rather than wasting government efforts on financially-irritating but otherwise harmless copyright violators.

There was a time when our government seemed so caught up in great-power international diplomacy that they forgot about protecting our business interests.  Their work to suppress piracy might be a step towards settling on pro-business policies that would actually create jobs, but we shouldn't do that at the cost of forgetting about great power matters.  Or is the business of America's government once again only business, and not national security at all?