The Best of Cablegate: Instances Where Public Discourse Benefited from the Leaks

Since late November, the whistleblower website Wikileaks has been in the process of releasing in waves over 250,000 leaked United States diplomatic cables. Known as “Cablegate,” this is the largest publication of confidential documents by any organization. (Catch up on Wikileaks developments by reviewing EFF’s page on this issue).

This blog post was originally published on EFF Deeplinks.

Since late November, the whistleblower website Wikileaks has been in the process of releasing in waves over 250,000 leaked United States diplomatic cables. Known as “Cablegate,” this is the largest publication of confidential documents by any organization. (Catch up on Wikileaks developments by reviewing EFF’s page on this issue).

Wikileaks’ disclosures have caused tremendous controversy, with critics of Wikileaks claiming the leaks of classified information could endanger lives and harm international diplomacy. Others have commended Wikileaks, pointing to a long history of over-classification and a lack of transparency by the United States government.

Regardless of the heated debate over the propriety of Wikileaks’ actions, some of the cables have contributed significantly to public and political conversations all around the world. In this article, we highlight a small selection of cables that been critical to understanding and evaluating controversial events.

  1. “Dancing Boy” Scandal Alleges Child Prostitution, Possible Drug Use among U.S. Private Contractors
    The Guardian reported on a cable describing an incident in which employees of DynCorp, a U.S. military contractor, hired a “dancing boy” for a party. The term “dancing boy,” also known as bacha bazi, is a euphemism for a custom in Afghanistan in which underaged boys are dressed as women, dance for gatherings of men and are then prostituted. Read more. The incident allegedly involved soliciting local Afghan police for a bacha bazi as well as usage of illegal drugs. The cable detailed that Hanif Armar, minister of the Interior of Afghanistan, urged the United States to help contain the scandal by warning journalists that reporting on the incident would endanger lives.The incident contributed important information to the debate over the use of private military contractors in Afghanistan. The articles published in the wake of Wikileaks’ publication of the cable are far more critical than the original reporting on the issue. For example, back in July of 2009, the Washington Post described the incident as “questionable management oversight,” in which “DynCorp employees in Afghanistan hired a teenage boy to perform a tribal dance.” This cable helped the Post and the public understand there was more to this story than a tribal dance.
  2. Pfizer Allegedly Sought to Blackmail Nigerian Regulator to Stop Lawsuit Against Drug Trials on Children
    A cable released by Wikileaks says that Pfizer “had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to [Nigerian] Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases.” The Guardian reported that the drug giant was trying to convince the Nigerian attorney general to settle lawsuits arising from medical testing of the oral antibiotic Trovan that it administered to children living in Kano during a meningitis epidemic in 1996. The cable also noted that Pfizer Nigeria Country Director Enrico Liggeri felt the lawsuits “has had a ‘chilling effect’ on international pharmaceutical companies because companies are no longer willing to conduct clinical testing in Nigeria.” This episode helped the public understand more about the controversies surrounding drug testing in underdeveloped countries, as well as the politics behind Nigeria’s settlement of the multi-billion dollar lawsuit for $75 million.
  3. U.S. Failed to Bully Spain Into Adopting Untested Anti-P2P bill
    A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks to the Spanish paper El Pais shows that the United States used bullying tactics to attempt to push Spain into adopting copyright laws even more stringent than those in the U.S. As EFF reported, a U.S. official apparently pressured the government of Spain to adopt novel and untested legislative measures that have never been proposed in the United States. The Wikileaks revelations came just in time, providing critical information in a December legislative session, and saving Spain from the kind of misguided copyright laws that could cripple innovation and facilitate online censorship.
  4. U.S. to Uganda: Let Us Know If You Want to Use Our Intelligence for War Crimes
    The United States has long supported the efforts of the Ugandan government to defeat theLord’s Resistance Army, as part of a conflict known for its brutality and the use of child soldiers. One cable released by Wikileaks indicated the United States was considering selling arms to Uganda. The Guardian reported that the U.S. ambassador accepted verbal promises from the Ugandan defense minister that they would “consult with the US in advance if the [Ugandan army] intends to use US-supplied intelligence to engage in operations not government [sic] by the law of armed conflict.” That same article noted that the United States has been concerned that the Ugandan government is engaged in actions which might violate the laws of war.Learning that U.S. intelligence might be used outside the laws of law, and that the U.S. government merely wanted a consultation, helped the public understand more about the American-Ugandan cooperation against the LRA, and informed the debate over the methods used to combat rebellions in Africa. This is not an idle concern- the very next day a cable detailed the use of extrajudicial execution of a Ugandan prisoner.
  5. U.S. Haggling over Guantánamo Detainees
    President Obama promised to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp since his campaign for the office, and reiterated the promise once he took office. Yet the controversial detention facility remains open. An article by the New York Times analyzed cables released by Wikileaks which indicated the United States is having difficulties in fulfilling this promise and is now considering some unique solutions. The cables show that U.S. diplomats have been searching for countries that would take detainees, often bargaining with foreign countries over the placement of prisoners. In return for accepting detainees, the receiving country might get a one-on-one meeting with Obama, assistance obtaining International Monetary Fund assistance, or some other helping hand from the United States. In one cable, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah recommended that the U.S. implant an electronic chip in each detainee for location tracking, using technology developed for livestock.

The debate over Wikileaks will continue for some time. But these examples make clear that Wikileaks has brought much-needed light to government operations and private actions which, while veiled in secrecy, profoundly affect the lives of people around the world and can play an important role in a democracy that chooses its leaders. As founding father James Madison explained, “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both.” Regardless of whether you agree with WikiLeaks, Cablegate has served an important role in bettering public understanding on matters of public concern.

In Data Portability Deathmatch, Users Lose Out

This blog post was originally published on EFF Deeplinks , and it was co-authored with my amazing colleague Marcia Hofmann. This is the first blog post I published on EFF. 

In the last few weeks, Facebook and Google have been engaging in a public tussle over an issue that is near and dear to EFF’s heart: data portability. The crux of the issue is that when you sign up for Facebook, you can find your Gmail contacts or invite them to join the social networking service with a few quick clicks. But when you sign up for Google, Facebook prevents you from easily inviting all of your Facebook friends to Google, despite the fact that Facebook makes it easy for users to export their contacts to other services like Yahoo!.

Earlier this month, Google altered its terms of use for API users in an attempt to push Facebook into making contacts more portable. Basically, if services (such as Facebook) aren’t willing to make contact data portable to Google, then Google will stop making Gmail contacts exportable to their sites. Somewhat ironically, Google is promoting data portability by restricting data portability.

This comes at a time when Facebook is launching a messaging product that may rival Google’s communication applications and rumors abound that Google is looking to make a foray into the realm of social networking — suggesting that market advantage, rather than user rights, could well be driving this data portability squabble.

Google’s maneuver is particularly interesting in light of Facebook v. Power Ventures, a case in which Facebook has sued a company that offers a tool for users to access and aggregate their personal information across social networking sites. Because Facebook’s terms of service don’t allow users to access their information through “automated means,” Facebook claims that Power’s access is not authorized or permitted, and therefore violates state and federal computer crime laws. (The court recently threw out one of these claims, finding that Power could not have violated California’s computer crime law merely by breaching Facebook’s terms of service — a result EFF urged the court to reach in two amicus briefs.)

So Google put Facebook in a bind. Facebook could:

  1. Let users take their Facebook contacts to Google,
  2. Stop importing contacts from Google, or
  3. Continue its current practice and violate Google’s terms of service — which Facebook itself has argued is criminal behavior.

Rather than taking this opportunity to give Facebook users the ability to export their contacts — something that EFF has strongly advocated for in the past — Facebook instead created a tool to work around Google’s restriction. Users signing up for Facebook are now prompted to download their Gmail contacts to their hard drives, and then upload them to Facebook. While this means an extra step for users, the end result is simply that Google contact data is still portable to Facebook, and Facebook doesn’t reciprocate. Google, in its latest salvo of the battle, is highlighting Facebook’s approach in a new message that asks users seeking to export their Gmail contacts to Facebook whether they’re sure they want to take their contacts to a service that refuses to let them export.

So why does exporting data matter to users?

Data portability is a deceptively simple idea with serious benefits for users. EFF championed data portability in our Social Network Bill of Rights. If an online service disrespects user privacy, lacks functionality or violates user expectations, a user should have the right to pack up her information easily and leave. This means that online platforms would have a vested interest in making sure users were happy with their services — or face an exodus.

Facebook has been working to improve its data portability. In October, Facebook announcedthat it would provide a way for users to export their content, which fits squarely into the Social Network Users’ Right to Leave. (That is, assuming you can figure out how to close your Facebook account.) But Facebook still doesn’t allow users to export the contact information of friends to any service they like.

However, that might be the most important thing.

Social networks like Facebook are more than just status updates, photos and links. They are built on relationships with people. So if you really want to abandon your social networking account and start homesteading a virtual farm on a different online platform, you’ll want to bring the contact data of your digital acquaintances with you. Facebook’s failure to freely provide this functionality makes it more difficult to leave Facebook for one of Facebook’s many social networking rivals.

Facebook, for its part, argues that users don’t have the right to easily download their friends’ contact data anymore than they have the right to mass download their friends’ photo albums. This is a somewhat dubious argument, considering Facebook does allow contact data to be exported to the iPhone address book, Yahoo! and Hotmail. While user privacy is important, hamstringing data portability isn’t the right solution. (And in fact, a savvy user can export Facebook contacts if he or she tries. Here’s how.) If Facebook wants to respect user privacy and choice, it should provide a simple way for users to download data — including the contact data of friends — while also providing an opt-out for individuals who never want their data downloaded by online acquaintances.

One thing should be clear to users of both Google and Facebook: when companies guard data to obtain a market advantage, consumers lose out.

UPDATE (11/16/10) — InsideFacebook.com is reporting a new feint from Facebook in its knife fight with Google over portability. After the launch of Facebook’s new unified messaging product yesterday, a Facebook spokesman told InsideFacebook that the company would allow users to export their friends’ email addresses — but only up to a point. Users will *only* be able to export their friends’ “@facebook.com” email addresses — the addresses associated with the new messaging service — which does little to enable competition in the social network arena, whether from Google or anyone else. As InsideFacebook points out, “Even if Google or another company managed to recreate parts of the social graph by importing @facebook.com addresses, these companies would still have to contact these users by their @facebook.com accounts, leaving the social network as the middleman.”