February 26, 2008

Internet Censorship

Last week, a federal district court judge ordered that the WikiLeaks web site, devoted to helping whistleblowers "expose wrongdoing," be taken down by its domain name registrar. The judge’s order was the result of a lawsuit by a Cayman Islands bank whose internal documents, implying tax evasion and money laundering, were posted on the web site. The bank argued that the documents were provided illegally by a disgruntled ex-employee and that release of the information, whether true or false, would be detrimental to the bank.

WikiLeaks may be allowed back on the Internet if it removes the bank documents. Nonetheless, the judge’s order seems to afford less First Amendment protection to web sites than to more traditional media. It’s hard to imagine a judge shutting down a magazine or newspaper, even temporarily. Moreover, the judge’s action is eerily similar to that of the Chinese government, which shut down WikiLeaks.cn last year for its own reasons.

The traditional remedy of awarding damages, where appropriate, would seem preferable here. The free market has a role to play as well. WikiLeaks has a national reputation to protect and thus has a built-in incentive not to post misinformation or otherwise appear reckless or irresponsible.

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