Apple, Wikileaks and the new debate on civil disobedience

December 22, 2010

Apple has removed from its iTunes store an app that let people read WikiLeaks’s site and follow its Twitter feed on their iPhones and iPads. The app had been approved only three days earlier, and the move is largely symbolic because anyone with an iPhone or iPad can still access the same content through a Safari or Opera browser.

In doing so, Apple is in some pretty good company in the tech industry. PayPal blocked donations to WikiLeaks and Amazon kicked Wikileaks off of its cloud. And all made their moves for similar reasons: Wikileaks broke the law, and these companies don’t support those who break the law.

There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful. The real debate is elsewhere: whether the benefits of leaking the recent State Department documents are larger than the costs; and, more broadly, whether the ideal of free speech is worth breaking laws to uphold. In other words, this is a debate over civil disobedience.

Whatever Wikileaks has accomplished, it’s brought the age-old debate over civil disobedience to the web in a way that will change both for good. In making their moves against Wikileaks, PayPal, Amazon and Apple are throwing themselves into the center of that debate. I think that’s a good thing. What is not such a good thing is the way they are conducting themselves in this debate.

In short, they are taking the easy way out. Maybe Jeff Bezos, John Donahoe and Steve Jobs abhor what Wikileaks is doing, or maybe they support it but feel their businesses should follow other priorities. Either way, we don’t know. These companies are simply hiding behind the dictates of the law, and their silence on the issue only makes the excuses for their actions seem feeble, disingenuous and even a little cowardly.

The move is especially curious in Apple’s case. As some pointed out, the Wikileaks app – which charged $1.99 for access to a free site and claimed to donate half of the money to Wikileaks – violates a little-known clause in Apple’s developer’s agreement concerning charities. But Apple made clear it was pulling the app because it violates laws. In doing so, it caused consternation among those who are both Wikileaks defenders and Apple fanboys. And it made Apple look, yet again, spineless when it comes to supporting free speech.

After a while, this excuse that these companies are just following the law starts to sound hollow. When you found a company that goes on to shape the web, you are in essence signing up for a responsibility that involves taking stands in controversial debates – as Google has done on net neutrality. Google’s views on that subject are famously controversial, but at least it’s taken a stand.

Apple, Amazon and PayPal should do the same. It may complicate relationships with the government, but in the end it is also a marketing issue. Taking a strong stand on either side of this debate will help shape their brands. Staying quiet is leaving many loyal consumers with a feeling of disgust that these companies are underestimating at their own peril.

Update: Some commenters take issue with me saying “There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful.” Clearly there is debate on this question, too. That being the case, my hope that these companies address the free-speech debate they have waded into is that much stronger.


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“There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful.”

You may want to check again about whether or not there is question about this, because there are many many stories analyzing whether or not they did indeed break the law. Many law experts are saying they didn’t break any laws, just like The Pentagon Papers releases didn’t.

In the United States, people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but apparently companies like Apple, Amazon, and Paypal decide what is law and what isn’t. This is a borderline legal/illegal case, which should be left up to the judges to decide.

Even in France, the judge decided to allow the site to remain running until it passed through the legal system to better decide its legality.

Posted by thealternet | Report as abusive

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Posted by Apple, Wikileaks and the new debate on civil disobedience … | AfricaLeaks | Report as abusive

“There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful.”

Please cite which laws Wikileaks have violated or show which legal charges the U.S. government has pressed against Wikileaks. As far as I am aware, there are none so far, and from what I know, the closest thing that Wikileaks would be charged of would be the violation of the Espionage Act, which would nevertheless fail, because Wikileaks is located off the U.S.

This type of a simple, factual mistake severely hurts the integrity of the article

Posted by wintdkyo | Report as abusive

The U.S. government is struggling to find something to charge Wikileaks with and has so far failed, simply because there’s nothing illegal in factual reporting.

Legality aside, Apple’s behavior is disappointing. It obviously cares nothing for free speech.

Posted by duncanth | Report as abusive

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Posted by Apple, Wikileaks and the new debate on civil disobedience … | The Daily Conservative | Report as abusive

Just another reason to hate Apple. One, for not standing up for free speech and government transparency; And two, for being a closed operating system that mostly relies on selling image rather than real software substance.

Posted by cpuiulet | Report as abusive

Go to safari, go to wikileaks, choose put on frontscreen. done. It is that simpel. Apple just doesn’t wat you to pay 1.99 for something everyone should read.

Posted by Gethere2 | Report as abusive

No, sorry, the update does not fix it.

Your own hope to see companies address the free speech debate remains dubious in light of the fact that you were undermining that debate by throwing falsehood in the equation.

Lack of intellectual integrity…

Posted by Neander | Report as abusive

I am a strong supporter of civil disobedience. It is a national tradition dating back to the revolutionary war. These days however, the federal government wields more power than ever. If a company attempts to disobey the federal government, they will be shut down in a matter of days. The same thing goes for individuals. Right now any branch of government can take your house, car, boat, savings, and whatever else they wish. All they need is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The Patriot Act and property siezure laws virtually eliminate due process.

Posted by markcwells | Report as abusive

Well, I can see That I have some deleting to do on my computer. Everything apple comes off today . Your ascertion that Wikileaks is breaking the law is just plain in correct. The US doesn’t give a crap about the rule of law unless it is convient. That is the whole point of Wikileaks. We have a plethera of War Criminals running loose without any fear of prosecution. That isn’t an opinion by the way, it’s a verifiable fact. Of course facts are not relevant when it comes to the law. Facts seem to be what ever the US Government decides they are. Not to worry, the rest of the world can see exactly what is happening here. Our presidents lie to us,and they lie to our allies. We have become a militeristic authoritian society that pays lip service to our constitution and laws. It is a sad sad thing that I have to use foreign media to get any kind of straight forward journalism.
I can just delete Reuters from my list as easily as I can delete Apple software from my computer.

Posted by peterb37 | Report as abusive

I see you have not posted my last comments. No swear words no threats no bad behavior. I see how you guys work. Editing out comments to keep the unfavorable tally low is about par for the course.

Posted by peterb37 | Report as abusive

These comments are rite on the mark ” little question Wikileaks broke the law ” should read little question Wikileaks didn’t break the law ,these big companies are just brown nosing the government so they can keep there monopolies , thank god for Wikileaks it’s what the free word needs.

Posted by Dave1968 | Report as abusive

I wonder where the discussions within Mastercard, PayPal, Apple management originated.

Did the CEO in each case say, “This Wikileaks..trouble.. better distance ourselves..”(Are they like that??)
or did someone announce “Trouble on the way for anyone dealing with Assange.” (How would it be circulated??)

Posted by seymourfroggs | Report as abusive

Any government that is big enough to give you everything is also big enough to take it all away! I’m for fiscally-responsible government of a smaller size.

But I wish that people would remember that the United States is NOT a Democracy. The US is a democratic REPUBLIC! Or to be more accurate, a Constitutional Republic.


Posted by Dannyboy55 | Report as abusive

I think this poem fit the situation:

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within.
An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves among those within the gates freely, his sly whispers rustling through the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.
For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the sole of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

Roman Orator, Statesman 42 B.C.

Posted by Dannyboy55 | Report as abusive

“There is little question that the release of government documents by Wikileaks was unlawful.”

I don’t see how Wikileaks could have broken US law. As far as I know, all of the Wikileaks activity took place outside the US. Is it possible to break the laws of a country without ever setting foot inside it?

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

I like the questions by seymourfroggs. One can learn a great deal by studying details of communication.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

Plain and simply, the efforts by companies like Apple, etc., is absolutely futile, in that one can’t censor the Internet. The content is still available. The root of that capability is in the architecture, designed to route around bottlenecks/blockages/breakages. May the Deity bless the members of DARPA for their foresight. They’ve given the human race a nervous system finally…

This is why you don’t want to process in the cloud, like so many major software companies are trying to get you to do. Process in the cloud and you’ll loose control of it, and yes they do make it very sexy to go there.

Regardless of that, if anybody could be charged with a crime it’s the poor US military individual who’s being held incommunicado that actually released the documents. But with respect to him, all you hear is crickets…

Posted by alreaud | Report as abusive

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