Snowden and Media Friends: L’etat, C’est Nous

Louis XIV (seated) and family. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

“[T]he return of this information to the public marks my end,” Edward Snowden told the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman prior to telling that public — under the auspices of several journalists and publications — about the NSA’s PRISM program and other horrors of the modern American surveillance state.

Snowden did indeed suffer for his good deeds:  These days he lives in exile in Russia, awaiting a day when he might return home to some fate other than life in a prison cell at the hands of the criminals whose misdeeds he exposed.

It’s a shame to see Snowden picking a public fight with Wikileaks, an organization dedicated to a similar mission whose leader, Julian Assange, himself suffers a form of exile in Ecuador’s London embassy (one of his sources, American political prisoner Chelsea Manning, has it worse: She’s serving a 35-year sentence in Leavenworth for her heroism in exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan).

On July 28, Snowden took Wikileaks to task via Twitter: “Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped,” he wrote. “But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.”

Presumably Snowden’s ire applies to previous Wikileaks operations such as “Collateral Murder” and “Cablegate,” not just to this last week’s uncensored dumps of emails exposing the internal workings of Turkey’s government and of the US Democratic National Commitee.

The Wikileaks response (presumably tweeted by Assange) dripped vinegar: “Opportunism won’t earn you a pardon from Clinton & curation is not censorship of ruling party cash flows.”

I hesitate to criticize Snowden, or to impute to him the motives implied in the Wikileaks response. The sacrifices he’s made command a great deal of respect from those of us who value truth and transparency.

Nonetheless, Wikileaks is right and Snowden is wrong here.

Good and honest motives or not, Snowden and the journalists who help him disseminate “curated” selections from the information in his possession have set themselves up as little governments. They’re not “return[ing] this information to the public” which theoretically owns it. They’re merely parceling out the information THEY’VE decided it’s OK for the public to have. But the the NSA and the US State Department do the same thing. Snowden and friends differ from those organizations merely on content selection criteria, not on the principles involved.

Snowden and Assange both serve the public. But only one of them seems to actually trust that public.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • JdL

    This is a tough one. Here’s a thought experiment: suppose you acquire a huge dump of information that the government has collected. Half of it exposes crimes on the part of government employees; the other half is the personal medical records of every American. Would you publish it all, and sneer at anyone who criticized you?

    They’re not “return[ing] this information to the public” which theoretically owns it.

    Does the public “own” information just because the government has (illegitimately) collected it?

    I appreciate the danger you’re exposing, that Snowden/Assange/whomever will improperly edit out information for motives of his own. But I’m not sure this concern outweighs the contrary argument.

    • JdL,

      “Does the public ‘own’ information just because the government has (illegitimately) collected it?”

      I used the term “theoretically” to describe that claim. The theory is one held to by Snowden, and one preached by governments themselves (who claim to be employees of “the public”).

      Snowden claims to be “returning” information to the public, an implicit affirmation of the theory of public ownership. But the “curation” he and his journalistic associates engage in conflicts with a genuine belief in that theory, and is really no different in principle than if it was a clerk at DoD or the State Department deciding what the rest of us get to know.

      As to who owns information, the answer is: Nobody.

      • JdL

        As to who owns information, the answer is: Nobody.

        In the spirit of trying to figure out what that sentence means, let me ask: suppose somebody somehow acquires the medical records, or disciplinary records, or anything potentially embarrassing, about you and/or your friends and family members, or someone you don’t know. Is it wrong to object to those records being made public, since “nobody owns information”?

        • Is it wrong to object? Certainly not. It would be wrong to object on grounds of ownership of the information, however.

          I have diabetes. I do not own the information that I have diabetes. It’s just a fact, and someone else knowing it is not an infringement of any right of mine (HOW they got to know it might involve infringements).

          When I was in the Marine Corps, I was charged with violating Article 113 (“Misbehavior of a Sentinel or Lookout”) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and convicted in proceedings pursuant to Article 15 (Non-Judicial Punishment). Those facts are not things I own and other people knowing them does not violate my rights, although certain things they might do to find those things out might violate my rights (or the rights of others).

          I’m thinking of a number right now. If you guess that number, you have not violated my rights. If you abducted me and tortured me until I told you, you would be violating my rights. Do you see the difference?

          • JdL

            I’m thinking of a number right now. If you guess that number, you have not violated my rights. If you abducted me and tortured me until I told you, you would be violating my rights. Do you see the difference?

            More to the point at hand, if I use a key-logger to ascertain your password, then publish it, and people clean out your bank account, have I violated your rights? Or, if you accidentally leave a piece of paper with your password lying around, and I find it and publish it, have I violated your rights? Apparently you’d say no. I would disagree.

          • How did you install the keylogger? Did you break into my house? Did you in some way defraud me to gain access to my computer? Those, not the logging of the information, would be the violations of rights.

            No, you would not be violating my rights by publishing a password that you did not violate my rights to GET. Someone using that password to take money that isn’t theirs would be stealing, which is a violation of rights, but the password is a mere tool, like a set of lock picks (only lock picks can be stolen, while information can’t). You don’t blame the lock picks, or the manufacturer of the lock picks, for someone entering your house and stealing your stereo. You blame the burglar.

          • JdL

            A more apt analogy than lock picks would be the key to your front door. If you drop your door key, I find it, and I publicize details of your key (apparently duplicates can be made just from a high-resolution photograph), and someone uses that information to break into your house, do I have any culpability? I say I do.

            Or, back to something closer to the original article’s subject: if the government steals everyone’s health records, and someone passes that information on to Assange, does Assange have any culpability if he publishes those records without redaction? Or is ONLY the government guilty of a crime? I say Assange is guilty at least of a moral crime if he does that deliberately, and I think I’d extend that to say he is, or should be, liable for legal action as well.

          • JdL,

            Obviously we disagree on this.

            I really need to finish a piece I’ve been working on. Working title:

            There’s no such thing as a right to privacy, but most rights protect privacy.

          • JdL

            Can’t wait! 😉

          • Don G.

            That’s straight logic but Thomas misses the point by not coming back with something to suggest that the law is flawed to begin with. And of course the libertarian would change the law to reflect his ideology. Although granted, he may have been thinking it?

            How exciting! A conversation and possible debate on the pros and cons of libertarianism! And with a pretty smart one too!

  • JdL

    Further request for clarification: suppose that you accidentally leave 20 one-ounce gold coins on the ground, in a pouch with your name and contact info on it. I find the pouch. I think we’d agree that it would be a crime for me to pocket the coins? What if, instead, I move the bag from an out-of-the-way place to the main boulevard, preserving your contact info? Or from the street outside your house to the worst part of town? Or I hand the bag directly to someone I know is a wanton criminal and say “This belongs to TLK”? Is your position that I’ve committed no crime? If the answer is yes, then I understand your position better (but disagree with it).

    • My answer is yes. Gold coins are not information, they are physical assets which.

      If I “steal” your Social Security number, you still have it. If I steal your gold coins, you don’t still have them.

      Information is not property.

      • JdL

        Sorry, I’m confused. Yes, I’ve committed no crime, or yes I’ve committed a crime?

        • Yes, you’ve committed a crime. It’s my money. You know it’s my money. You take it anyway. You’ve stolen something from me.

          The information that I am having a torrid affair with a woman to whom I’m not married, on the other hand, is not something I can “own.”

          If you happen to be walking past my house and notice that I am having sex with her on the couch in front of a large picture window, you’ve not “stolen” anything, even though you now have information you didn’t have before. I also still have that information (at least I hope I know that I’m having sex with her — not knowing would be pretty creepy).

          If you break INTO my house in the middle of the night and observe that she and I are in bed together, the crime you’ve committed is breaking into my house, not knowing something that you didn’t know before you broke into my house.

          • JdL

            So you’re saying I “stole” your money, even if, say, I moved it from an obscure spot where no one including you would ever find it, to some spot where you might stand a chance of someone returning it to you? OK, I agree at least that I’ve committed a crime, though I’m not sure I’d call it “theft”.

            But if instead I did not touch your gold but flooded the Internet with the message “Hey, there’s a bag of gold up for grabs under a tree at GPS coordinates xxx. Have fun, and don’t steal anything!” That would be ok?

            I would classify the two acts as the same (or nearly so), and depending on the circumstances might think the second is worse than the first.

          • And I wouldn’t classify them as the same or nearly so. I wouldn’t say the second act is “OK” — it would be incredibly rude — but it’s not a violation of my rights.

          • JdL

            That’s very clear; thanks. If I sent that information (the GPS coordinates of your gold) to Assange, perhaps mixed in with revelations of genuine public interest, would it be wrong of Assange to edit out that information if he publishes the rest?

          • Would it be wrong for him to release the information in redacted form? No.

            Would it be wrong for him to release it in unredacted form? Possibly — but not if we restrict the word “wrong” to “force-initiating.”

            But if he postured as “returning information to its owners,” while simultaneously claiming the prerogative of deciding which parts of that information he thinks they deserve to have, he would be a hypocrite.

          • JdL

            Whew! I’m not seeing how the phrase “returning information to its owners” turns an otherwise good person into a hypocrite. And redacting (theoretically up to the entire contents of a document) vs. leaving out documents if their contents are irrelevant and personal is a delicate distinction, I think. However, I’m satisfied with our discussion and feel I understand your position better.

          • Snowden claims that the information belongs to the public. I’m not the one saying that, he is.

            Snowden then says “here’s some stuff I say you own — I’m going to give some of it back to you, but not the parts I don’t think you should have.”

            Well, does the public own it or not? If so, who the fuck is Snowden to keep it from them? That’s the hypocrisy problem. He’s the one claiming they own it, then not acting like he believes that.