Calling the bluff: Twitter’s response to a subpoena’s Threat Level blog recently featured Twitter in what I believe to be a very positive light. Rather than just quietly fold when faced with a subpoena for information about people of interest in regard to Wikileaks and a corresponding gag order forbidding Twitter from informing the subjects about the subpoena, Twitter decided to call the bluff–or even raise, depending on how you look at it. From the article:

The court order came with a gag order that prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the target of the order, about the order’s existence.

To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets that their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.

Twitter and other companies, notably Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena, or a similar request for records. That gives the user a fair chance to go to court and try and quash the subpoena. That’s a great policy. But it has one fatal flaw. If the records request comes with a gag order, the company can’t notify anyone. And it’s quite routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records request.

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.

It is refreshing to see a company stand up and defend the rights of its users the way Twitter did here. I’m quite disgusted from a civil liberties standpoint that it’s now routine for law enforcement to attach a gag order to a subpoena. Someone needed to do something about it.

I concur with the author’s hope that other companies follow Twitter’s lead. Specifically, Facebook and Yahoo (who currently owns Flickr and Delicious) would do well to adopt the challenge of gag orders attached to subpoenas as a matter of company policy. For that matter, anyone responsible for an online service involving the data of others, even as a hobbyist effort, would do well to challenge a gag order attached to such a subpoena, especially one from a law enforcement agency, or perhaps even defy it outright (riskier, and only for the especially brave).

At the poker table, players who routinely bluff with nothing eventually have to show down a losing hand. Usually, they don’t bluff for a while after that. This is surprisingly similar to what happens in real life, certainly more similar than most cops and prosecuting attorneys would have you believe. Because the concept of a citizenry that knows their legal rights and asserts them is anathema to them, and a direct threat to how many of them do their jobs.

Thoughts on Wikileaks, diplomatic cables, and the future of journalism

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or otherwise intentionally avoiding news reports for whatever reason, you have probably heard something about Wikileaks (if down, try this IP address-based link) and its release of cablegrams between embassies which has sparked a huge controversy. In case you haven’t, or you need to be brought up to speed quickly (all from CBS News):

And this is of course just the tip of the iceberg. I could link you to all the press coverage, but I’d be here all night doing that alone before offering up my viewpoint on some of the things that have happened.

The publication of documents intended to be kept secret is a balancing act that at times makes a circus tightrope walker’s routine seem easy by comparison. I was somewhat familiar with Julian Assange and the Wikileaks site prior to the cablegram releases. However, I had not spent a great deal of time visiting the site on a daily basis. That’s about to change; suffice it to say that I will probably be writing about the material on Wikileaks on a semi-regular basis, especially since the latest release has threatened the site’s continued existence.

And I feel that is a shame. I trust Julian’s judgment, and I do not believe he or the others responsible for maintaining Wikileaks would release the 652 cablegrams marked “Secret” without good reason. From the FAQ:

US authorities have said the release may put people at risk. Is this true?

Wikileaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have released documents pertaining to over 100 countries. There is no report, including from the US Government, of any of our releases ever having caused harm to any individual. For this release we are releasing the documents in a gradual manner, reviewing them with the assistance of our media partners.

And later on:

What will the effect be on the Middle East?

One newspaper has alleged the cables might destabalize the Middle East. These cables, by giving the players an unvarnished description of how they are seen, there will be a common ground on which to effectively negotiate peace and stability. We do not see this as a risk of destabilisation, but an opportunity for stabilisation and reform in the Middle East.

While it may be embarrassing to certain individuals for some of the contents of the cablegrams to be made public, this is not the same as being “put… at risk.” Sometimes, journalism requires embarrassing a few people for the greater good.

Until and unless there is hard evidence that someone has been injured or killed as the result of a release of information in the style of Wikileaks (not just from Wikileaks itself, but from any other organization which releases information in the same style), I personally regard Julian Assange as more of a modern-day hero, unlike some who appear to call him a modern-day zero (or other choice words, including “terrorist” and a few things I prefer not to put here).

I believe Wikileaks and websites like it are the future of journalism. Granted, most websites placed online will not have content quite as controversial as the leaked cablegrams currently at the center of attention. However, there is no shortage of information which large corporations, governments, or wealthy and influential individuals want to keep secret, which should be made public. As said by Thomas Jefferson, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”

I believe the latest release from Wikileaks has demonstrated the saying “information wants to be free” has never been more true, and has shattered any remaining doubts that the Internet is just a passing fad. It matters little what Amazon, Paypal, the US government, and others that wish to try to censor Wikileaks do. In the long term, they are all fighting a losing battle.

I wish Julian and his partners the best of luck in continuing the success of Wikileaks. May freedom of the press win and censorship lose.

Retaliation, Australian style

As reported by TG Daily, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had his passport taken from him upon arrival in Melbourne, Australia, and was later told his passport would be cancelled. I have verified this story with other sources and none of them cite an official reason.

Thus, we are then left to assume that this is direct and wanton retaliation for Julian’s activities related to Wikileaks, specifically (quoting the article):

Last year, Wikileaks published a list of websites which were to be banned under the government’s proposed internet filter. While the aim of the filter is to block extreme pornography and the like, the blacklist included a number of more prosaic sites such as those of a travel company and a dentist.

Assange said that shortly after his passport was returned he was questioned about a hacking offence committed when he was a teenager.

(I’ll get to the second part in a bit.)

From the looks of things, it appears the Australian government has serious issues with the freedom of information. It is a safe assumption that Australia’s own citizens will be paying for this filtering system through government taxes. As such, they have the right to know what exactly this filter is blocking, and I would also argue the right to opt out of it should they so choose. The blocking of a travel company and dentist, among other obviously non-pornographic sites, falls well within what Australia’s citizens have a right to know. In fact, depending on exactly how the filtering works, it’s something the rest of the world has a right to know as well.

This is an egregious case of censorship by the Australian government and to say the least, it really burns me up. My question: since it is obvious Julian does not like Australia, what is the point in not letting him leave (the obvious consequence of a cancelled passport)?

Now, about the second part. I am quite disturbed that the government of Australia would bring into play an offense Julian committed nearly two decades ago (and an obvious misdemeanor at that), and imply that it is somehow relevant to who he is today. It isn’t, really. If a misdemeanor from 19 years ago is being worked into the reason his passport is being cancelled, we have even more reason to despise and distrust the Australian government.

Interesting sidenote: Until reading about him on Wikipedia, I didn’t know Julian was the author of the Strobe portscanner. In my early years learning about network security, I used Strobe for many portscans prior to learning of the existence of Nmap (I did not begin using GNU/Linux until 1998).