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News Analysis: Is online freedom at risk following the Wikileaks revelations?

With the fallout following the leaking of 250,000 sensitive US documents online by the website Wikileaks yet to truely begin, Stephen Lepitak talks to some online and PR experts about what the leaks could mean for online freedom at large.

Almost as long as the internet has been available in homes, questions around its regulation and whether it is ‘too free’ from laws and restrictions have been asked. Governments have been slow to update or introduce laws which would include online, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why Wikileaks has been able to go about its business unperturbed.

Now though, the wrath of America is upon it as politicians cry ‘terrorism’ at the website and claims that it places its front-line military in danger by leaking secret information to the world.

In reaction, what measures will begin to appear then in future, to ensure that such freedom is not enjoyed online again, and give Governments more control over the online world?

"This moment was always going to come - with Wikileaks or without it,“ says Iain S Bruce, managing director of online PR consultancy Revolver PR.

“From the instant the web was conceived the freedom of information movement has been on a collision course with big government, and if there's a surprise here it's that it's taken almost 20 years for the issue to come to a head.”

Bruce continues: “There will undoubtedly be renewed calls to regulate the internet more robustly, but you might as well try catching a wet weasel with chopsticks. The international nature of the medium makes meaningful control close to impossible, and when all the bluster dies down governments will still be facing the hard reality that if you don't want sensitive information made widely available, you have to work a lot harder at keeping it secret.”

Justin Basini, Founder and CEO of online privacy protection firm ALLOW, believes that the WikiLeaks release of confidential information is part of 'a bigger trend of radical transparency' that is 'being adopted, or forced', onto organisations and companies.

"This trend will have significant implications on society and the Internet. There will need to be considerable change in the control mechanisms that are applied to different types of data. The key will be ensuring that permission, transparency and control are maintained and respected by those who own the data," adds Basini.

Peter Burling, client services director for Brazen PR feels that, at the very least, questions will be asked about the use of online communications to send sensitive information in future; "One thing it should teach every diplomat across the world, if they didn't already realise it, is that if you want to send confidential information to colleagues do not use email or any other form of electronic mail to do so. The digital revolution provides easy fuel for digital revulsion should the delicate contents of critical emails fall into the wrong hands - as they invariably do."

It's a fair point made by Burling. Just how much can we trust the communications that we send online? There may be a sense of privacy about them, but in the main, it is because no one really cares what the public is writing to a friend or colleague at work. But when clicking 'send', who knows who really has access to your information in the end. It could be the boss, it could be the Prime Minister. Perhaps the freedom of the internet was never there at all in the first place.

“The jury’s still out on the merits of the Wikileaks release of confidential data; as the management guru Tom Peters posted on Twitter on Sunday: ‘I do not believe that diplomacy is well served by 100% transparency‘. But whatever the rights and wrongs, when a memory stick can be more powerful than a nation state, it’s a reminder about the disruptive force of technology,“ comments James Trezona, managing director of Mason Zimbler.

“Can governments do more to censor such releases of information? I’m not sure how. All governments can do is be prepared to counter such publication, putting their side of the story. So I think we’ll see governments being more open about sharing ‘their version of the truth’ by right of reply (get prepared for even bigger archives to wade through). Of course, technology has always been a game-changer and Wikileaks – and sites like it – are just a reminder that it’s a juggernaut that can’t be stopped”

That openness, should it truly happen, is likely to be highly scrutinised and never be truly ‘open’ should Governments be looking to avoid future embarrassments such as this. Yet while it seems that more regulations are the most obvious route of attack in preventing such situations, the ‘free world’ will also not wish to be compared to countries such as China and be seen as restricting the online liberty and knowledge of those living within it.

But what about those who actively speak out and attack Governments and people in authority. Could they too suffer in future if the digital world does indeed become ‘monitored’?

Iain Bruce believes that is likely to be the case.

“If anyone is going to suffer for this one, it'll be the bloggers,“ he states. “The amateur commentators have largely been ignored until now, but in a climate of heightened sensitivity over information the chances are that they will be much more closely scrutinised, with the authorities becoming increasingly willing to intervene over the publication of factual errors, half-truths and downright libels."

The fall out from this situation has yet to truly begin it would seem, and the measures that will be put in place as a result maybe minor to begin with, but now the online world is the focus of the US Government, which has been issued two fingers and a bloody nose with a digital fist, something will come back to bite it.