Wikileaks And The Battle Over The Soul Of The Networked Fourth Estate

* Article: Yokai Benkler, A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks And The Battle Over The Soul Of The Networked Fourth Estate, forthcoming Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 66 pages

The netdefenses blog reviews the draft version of the forthcoming essay:

“Parts I and II tell the story of Wikileaks, the release of the documents, and the multisystem attack on the organization, the site, and Julian Assange by both public and private actors. Part III explains the constitutional framework, and why it is not, as a matter of law, sustainable to treat Wikileaks or Assange any differently than the New York Times and its reporters for purposes of prior restraint or ex post criminal prosecution consistent with the first amendment’s protection of freedom of the press. … Part IV explores the ways in which the Wikileaks case intersects with larger trends in the news industry.” (p.3)


1. Introduction

“It forces us to ask us how comfortable we are with the actual shape of democratization created by the Internet. The freedom that the Internet provides to networked individuals and cooperative associations to speak their minds and organize around their causes has been deployed over the past decade to develop new networked models of the fourth estate. These models circumvent the social and organizational frameworks of traditional media, which played a large role in framing the balance between freedom and responsibility of the press. At the same time, the Wikileaks episode forces us to confront the fact that the United States government can bring to bear new kinds of pressure on undesired disclosures in extralegal partnership with the commercial owners of the critical infrastructures of the networked environment. The members of the networked fourth estate turn out to be both more susceptible to new forms of attack than those of the old, and to possess different sources of resilience in the face of these attacks. (p. 1)”

2. On NYT et al.’s retaliatory behaviour:

“As a practical result, the traditional media in the United States effectively collaborated with parts of the Administration in painting Wikileaks and Assange in terms that made them more susceptible to both extralegal and legal attack. This part suggests that the new, relatively more socially-politically vulnerable members of the networked fourth estate are needlessly being put at risk by the more established outlets’ efforts to denigrate the journalistic identity of the new kids on the block to preserve their own identity. (p. 4)”

3. Conclusion

“It teaches us that the traditional, managerial-professional sources of responsibility in a free press function imperfectly under present market conditions, while the distributed models of mutual criticism and universal skeptical reading, so typical of the Net, are far from powerless to deliver effective criticism and self-correction where necessary. The future likely is, as the Guardian described its own experience with Wikileaks, “a new model of co-operation,” between surviving elements of the traditional, mass-mediated fourth estate, and its emerging networked models. The transition to this new model will likely be anything but smooth. (p. 66)”

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