Tim Berners-Lee on Wikileaks and competing democratic values

Tim Berners-Lee, the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and inventor of the World Wide Web, drew a distinction between Wikileaks and efforts to increase government transparency through open data, which he is involved with in the UK. Alexander Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, has a good summary of his comments on the Huffington Post.

Berners-Lee succinctly discussed just a few of the values in a democratic society that have come into conflict in the Wikileaks case.

The whistleblower idea is very important to democracy, for the overturning of repressive regimes. The idea that the press should be able to not reveal their sources, for example, is a very important principle, and the fact that people should be accountable for what they say, and that you can’t just go out there anonymously insulting people, libeling them, creating havoc, which then spreads uncontrolled [?] damage across the blogosphere without any kind of accountability. That’s an important principle too. Obviously these principles are in conflict. And we, as a society, have to work out rules which allow us to have norms on both sides of the line, which allow both principles to survive, and where they are in total conflict, have a way of resolving in each case. That’s my feeling I’ve been asked that question a few times.

I think there are several democratic values at conflict in this case, and as democratic societies, we’re going to have to discuss these issues. The Wikileaks case has brought to public attention issues that specialists in internet security, government transparency and internet governance have been discussing for years. It’s good that Wikileaks has brought these issues forward to the general public. I hope that after some of the dust settles from the particulars of Wikileaks that these thorny debates move forward.