WikiLeaks, Google Trends and freedom of speech
The controversy surrounding WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, continues to roll on with founder Julian Assange fighting extradition to Sweden and a global network of hackers taking revenge on some of the web's biggest brands.
WikiLeaks started releasing its latest batch of confidential documents and diplomatic communiqués earlier this month. While it was not the first time WikiLeaks had lifted the lid on the secretive business government, this latest release has been by far the most controversial.
If you take a look at Google Trends, previous WikiLeaks publications on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely registered. This latest dump of information on the other hand saw the search volume index leap up to around the 200 mark.
Assange is an Aussie, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Australian searches for "WikiLeaks" are in the global top ten. Sweden has seen the heaviest search volume, probably because Assange is wanted for questioning by Swedish prosecutors over allegations of sexual assault.
WikiLeaks is clearly a globally newsworthy topic at the moment, which has prompted Google to pull in news articles and display them on its universal results page. This is great for specialist news providers, who are getting exposure to massive search volumes. If these sites can push out some relevant and original angles on the story, then they could see their traffic figures go through the roof.
Publish and be damned?
Rather than the search trends, the main topic of debate online and in the mainstream media has been around the rights and wrongs of WikiLeaks' actions. For years, newspaper and magazine editors have faced tricky decisions about whether or not to print controversial stories. Is the spike in circulation and the satisfaction of remaining loyal to your journalistic principles worth the threat of day in court?
WikiLeaks is of course not a traditional media outlet, which is why those angered by its actions are struggling to find a way to bring it to book. Conspiracy theorists claim the lack of an obvious legal stick with which to beat the website and its owners has led to pressure being applied to its various service providers, such as Amazon and PayPal. Some even go so as far as to suggest the extradition proceedings Assange is facing are part of a global plot to destroy WikiLeaks and prevent further embarrassing revelations.
Assange has certainly earned himself some influential enemies, but he also has some powerful forces fighting his corner, including people willing to post bail or try to bring down the websites of major corporations despite never having met him.
The WikiLeaks debate has polarised opinion, with righteous anger and some rather extreme views on both sides. Most reasonable people would agree that free speech and a free press are both important elements of a modern democracy. But these freedoms should not be unlimited and have to be balanced with other rights, such as the right to privacy.
Few of us would want every private thought, conversation or email exchange to end up in the public domain. If that happened, it would stifle open and honest discussion regardless of whether you're a diplomat or a member of the royal family.