Academic journal article Arena Journal

WikiLeaks, Pedagogy and the Ethical Limits of Research

Academic journal article Arena Journal

WikiLeaks, Pedagogy and the Ethical Limits of Research

Article excerpt

Note to the US government: We know this is bad for you. Don't make it worse by criminalizing everyone who studies international politics.1

Using publicly available material from the WikiLeaks database has thrown up a dilemma for scholars and researchers.2 In principle, this would seem a non-issue: material, despite its classified status, is made available via online search engines that serve a range of informational, pedagogical and research purposes. Such availability offers the chance of the material being reproduced, for example through links to other sites, including online learning tools such as Blackboard. But the search for knowledge is permanently encumbered by moderating and mediating obstacles. The academic and research field is strewn with ethical codes. Hierarchies of accessibility and use in learning institutions span a range of protocols, from legal permissions to intellectual property and copyright protections.3

American authorities, both academic and governmental, have taken the view that classified material obtained illegally and subsequently published does not lose its confidential character.4 It is the ethical and legal nature of the status of the material and the way it is imparted or produced, rather than the ethics of knowing and accessing such material, that counts. This philosophy is made clear when sites are taken down, or internet service providers pressed to be guardians of 'appropriate' subject matter.5

The restrictions on using the United States diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 in academic research has seeped to varying degrees not merely into research activity proper but into the instruction of both undergraduate and graduate students. Along with academics, the entire research and educational community faces challenges as to whether its members can make reference to or comment on cables deemed to have been obtained illegally yet made available to a global audience. In some cases the issue is even more serious: researchers and academics have been told not to even read such material for fear of jeopardising their career prospects.

In responding to this, a contradiction has unfolded, one institutionally contrived on the basis of risk that emphasises a middle ground. This position exonerates universities and research institutes as entities dedicated to open teaching practices, while also warning that WikiLeaks material is dangerous to students. This default position amounts to a defence of state-sanctioned secrecy through restriction of access to WikiLeaks materials, suggesting that academics and educational institutions may reproduce the interests of larger political forces - that is, interests beyond the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.6 This was pointed to by Julian Assange when he said that UK and US internationalrelations journals act as 'feeders' for the US State Department. The International Studies Association (ISA), he said, 'has a quiet, official policy of not accepting any paper that is derived from WikiLeaks materials' in its publications.7 Mark Boyer, Executive Director of the ISA, denied this but nevertheless admitted that the editors of the association's journals had considered 'the implications of publishing material that is legally prohibited by the US government'.8 It is primarily the latter point that this article is concerned with.

Pursuing this inquiry, I first report on the various policies adopted by US governments and universities on the use of WikiLeaks documents. Views across a range of US institutions are considered, especially with respect to their 'risk appetite'. Whether there are issues here for the value of academic freedom is also discussed. I take the view that free use of WikiLeaks and related data accords with the best traditions of the academy.

I then critique arguments brought against using WikiLeaks material on two grounds centred on the idea of 'the bolting horse': that the technology - global, unfettered access that normatively 'declassifies' material in a hyperlinked online environment - has bolted; and that it is futile to try to contain it. …

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