The Ethics of Access in the Age of WikiLeaks

wikileaks ethics
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In July, during the moments immediately following the terrorist attacks in Nice, France I found myself frequently checking my phone’s Twitter app. I was not near a television and wanted to get updates for what was going on. A deranged Islamic extremist had plowed through crowds of people at a parade with a 20-ton truck. The confirmed death counts were rising fast. A quick swipe of the thumb refreshed my twitter feeds and I could see the most recent updates from news outlets and individuals who were recounting the events at the attack scene.

 

It was within the first hour that a particular scene from my twitter feed stunned me. It was a WikiLeaks post and included live video footage. A person was walking the truck’s path the killer had driven through the crowd. Dead and mangled bodies covered the road, bloody and disfigured. It occurred to me that many family members were learning their loved ones had been victims in the attack through this footage now posting instantly all over the world. Neither the French government nor the traditional media had released any names by that point and they wouldn’t for at least another 24 hours. The final impression on the earth of these sons, daughters, brothers and sisters – human beings – was their disfigured dead or dying bodies featured on a twitter feed.

 

The images were shocking and my immediate internal response was a surprising anger. What right did WikiLeaks have to post these images? What purpose did it serve? Publishing the images of these victims did not add to the story or the news coming out. It only created a unique exclusive for WikiLeaks. Was that what a human life was now worth in our impulse driven media age? This was click bait of the most extreme and inhumane kind.

 

Recently,  an Associated Press story detailed how another series of releases from WikiLeaks disclosed a batch of many individuals’ private information. Private health information for some individuals has been included in the published records. The names of rape victims, including teenagers, was among some of the publications. Items that would previously have been off limits by traditional media and journalistic standards and ethics is either fair game or carelessly overlooked in WikiLeaks’ drive to the next sensational expose.

wikileaks ethics

Drawing attention to these errors is not based from an opposition to the work and exposure that WikiLeaks has sponsored. They have no doubt been highly impacting on current global affairs if not also helpful in some arenas. The issue however is that access and exposure alone is not a reliable ethic. Access and exposure without ethics creates far more problems rather than solutions no matter if we are looking at WikiLeaks, the Panama Papers, or the Snowden files. The publication of rape victims’ names, images of dead and dying family members, all published on the world wide web represents access without ethics.

 

Simply because we can tell the whole story, does not mean we should tell the whole story. Simply because we can access all the information does not mean we should. Accessible is not synonymous with ethical even when we give such tactics the more popular label of transparency.

Age of Access

 

WikiLeaks and its offspring simply represent a high profile case study of the wider shift in global culture and social norms. We are living in an age that has substituted access for ethics, assuming permissibility and benefit in the face of all the access we are confronted with on a daily basis. Where does it stop though?

 

Consider the issue of pornography. There was a time when most reasonable people agreed that pornography was socially taboo. It was out there but accessing it required a deliberate trespass of a societal and ethical boundary in most instances. The accessibility to pornography on the internet has changed that today. One study reports about 12% of the ever growing internet now consists of pornography web sites. Forty million Americans are regular visitors to these sites every day and the average age for initial exposure to online pornography is age eleven. Most experts suggest these statistics have even worsened in the last five years. We can add the growing abundance of online child pornography to these trends as well.

 

Pornography represents a clear example of access without ethics and its effects within our society are telling. Among married adults 56% of divorces are partially due to one spouse having an obsession with pornography. Among college students and children, those who have grown up in the age of access, there has been a reported rise in high school and college age sexual assaults and rapes. One study showed that 20% of women are victimized by sexual assaults in college today.  In response to the growth in these types of statistics across the country several college campuses have instituted consent training programs in an effort to teach students what sexual consent looks like. According to the founders of these programs students need to be taught what both NO and YES mean and what this looks like when it comes to sexual consent.

ethics access

A college training program might not be enough to overcome a fundamental erosion of social and cultural values that were once considered ethical. Access has been misconstrued as permissibility because we have supplanted the boundaries of ethics which were once embraced. We have become a society that interprets accessibility as permissibility. The boundaries of ethics which codified right and wrong are increasingly absent. If I can get it, I can have it. If I can have it then it must be okay.

When Ethics Fail

 

In the early years of WikiLeaks their motto was “If wars can be started on lies, they can be stopped with truth.” The suggestion was that transparency would correct the fractured trust in society that had been born of lies hidden behind the walls of privacy.

 

This demonstrates what helped lead us to our present state. In the past, many were capable of using the protective walls of inaccessibility to hide their own lack or abuse of ethics. In the case of WikiLeaks’ motto they were specifically targeting the U.S. and President George W. Bush’s administration who had gone to war in Iraq on the basis of lies. If the boundaries of access are upheld by unethical means, then there is no legitimacy to an ethical boundary.

ethics reform

Ethical boundaries are only as strong as the standards of ethics of those who enforce them. No matter if we are talking about WikiLeaks, online pornography, or college campus sexual assault statistics, the responsibility for failure in these areas lies not only with those who are violating the former ethical boundaries. The responsibility lies first with those who were charged with enforcing those boundaries to begin with.

 

The age of access is one in which the true corruption of our systems is being uncovered. This has had an unintended consequence however. Utilizing access to expose ethical failings has not led to greater truth and stability. Instead, a worldview of access without ethics is permeating the system. Corruption is rising, not falling as we are introduced to more and more doors of open access at every turn. Restoring social stability and security is not going to be found by re-instilling limits on access, even if that were possible. If we are to regain a society that is safe for us and our children it will take shape through the reprioritization of ethics. We do what is right even though we have the opportunity and access to do otherwise.

 

Accessible but Not Ethical – Personal Standards of Right and Wrong

 

The Apostle Paul referred to this same logic twice in his letter to the Corinthian church. Corinth was the “sin city” of the ancient world with sexual immorality pervading almost every aspect of the social configuration there. The Corinthian church itself had succumbed in allowing it to enter in the homes and lives of its people. Paul leveraged this local inaccuracy to discuss a variety of relevant truths for the Christian life. Included among these was the issue of access and ethics.

 

In 1 Corinthians 6:12 he says – I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. Access and opportunity do not equate to permissibility. There is a higher standard or ethic which must guide our lives if we desire to truly live as effective, productive and free people. Failure to abide by this higher ethic results in a personal slavery of our souls to these things which appear accessible and available.

 

Again in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 he writes – “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Central to that ethic of right living is a subordinating if our own rights, access, and opportunities to what is beneficial to those around us, especially those closest to us.

ethical living

Access and ethics are not synonymous. Ethics create stronger, more stable, quality lifestyles and societies. No matter if we are looking to WikiLeaks, or our own lives and homes this fundamental principle should be remembered. Quality of life is not born on the basis of what we can do but on the basis of what we should do.  The nature of the “should” is the ethical standard we live our life by.

 

What is your ethical standard?

It is easy to see ethical standards challenged in the world at large today but how are you holding to those standards for your yourself and for your home?

 

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