The bizarre legal world of WikiLeaks

Guardian book serialisation accused of containing "malicious libels".

In an extraordinary development, WikiLeaks appears to be threatening legal action over the serialisation in the Guardian of WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy.

The wording of the Tweet is worth considering carefully:

"The Guardian book serialization contains malicious libels. We will be taking action."

First, the use of "we" suggests that the (presumably legal) "action" is threatened by WikiLeaks as an entity, rather than by any particular individual such as its founder Julian Assange. This suggestion is supported by the fact it was sent on the official WikiLeaks Twitter feed. If this is the case, then WikiLeaks may be following the unhappy example of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) and other organisations in making libel threats in respect of unwelcome scrutiny and comment. And, as with the BCA, such a course of action can quickly be seen as illiberal and misconceived.

Second, the alleged libels are not just your normal libels but "malicious" libels. This may be careless verbiage, but presumably this tweet was checked by a legal adviser before publication. If the invocation of "malice" was deliberate, this would be a serious (indeed defamatory) accusation against the Guardian: not only is the serialisation defaming Wikileaks, it is doing so with the wrongful motive of doing damage to WikiLeaks. However, WikiLeaks has presented no evidence of such malice.

Furthermore, WikiLeaks has not even specified the alleged libels. It has instead made a bare and vague threat, the very sort of corporate attempt to deter public scrutiny which has led many to support the libel reform campaign.

But, as the founder of WikiLeaks himself recently signed the Libel Reform petition, there is the question as to whether there is a lack of consistency with this threat to bring a libel claim against the Guardian.

In any event, the use of a libel threat makes it clear that although WikiLeaks promotes transparency and openness for others, it does not really enjoy being scrutinised itself.

This basic lack of intellectual and legal consistency can be seen elsewhere. For example, it is reported that Assange believes WikiLeaks has some form of legal ownership in the confidential and secret information that it proposes to publish. This is an astonishing and legally incorrect view, especially when a great deal of that information was provided in breach of civil and criminal law. Assange even threatened to sue the Guardian on this remarkable basis.

David Leigh, the co-author of the serialised book, calls this latest legal threat "comical". That is a generous word, and the threat at least warrants the application of the leading case of Arkell v Pressdram. However, in my view, the threat is more discrediting and worrying than funny.

The Guardian has confirmed no formal threat has been received; it may never now be sent. But whether the threat was made in earnest or not, it is another troubling indication of the increasingly muddled and paranoid world of WikiLeaks.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital