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WikiLeaks and hacktivists labelled threats to US trade

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the new US Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of US Trade Secretes (Strategy), released last week, lists whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks and other digital activists ("hacktivists") among those who use tools of "economic espionage against US companies." The Strategy, aimed at "coordinating and improving the government's efforts to protect trade secrets against foreign competitors," was made public as Private Bradley Manning, accused of providing documents to WikiLeaks, marked 1,000 days in custody and prepares to appear again before a military court.

ARTICLE 19 recognises that the US government has legitimate interests in protecting the confidentiality of information that contains trade secrets or that would be likely to seriously prejudice the commercial interests of third parties. However, including whistleblowers and new media websites, such as WikiLeaks, among those that pose a threat to the US economy is worrying. It is indicative of continuous attempts by the US government to suppress the functioning of whistleblowing organisations on various grounds.

ARTICLE 19 has previously highlighted that organisations, such as Wikileaks, represent a powerful extension of the media's function as a public watchdog, by receiving information from confidential sources and making it available to the public. This is particularly important for information about corruption, fraud, mismanagement, illegal corporate practices and many other ills in society. WikiLeaks and similar organisations have become important forums through which the public are alerted to such disclosures. They have also reinvigorated investigative journalism and inspired new forms of non-traditional media that have diversified the means through which people share and receive information.

So far, WikiLeaks has exposed governmental wrongdoing alongside the wrongdoing of private companies. The organisation has also drawn attention to illegal and unethical practices of private intelligence companies targeting individuals on behalf of their corporate and government clients, shed light on tax evasion through Swiss banks and revealed the US government's efforts to drive up the price of medicine in developing countries.

In respect to the protection of commercial interests, ARTICLE 19 also recalls that in 2008, the US District Court for the Northern California rejected an attempt of the Swiss Bank, Julius Baer, to restrain Wikileaks from disclosing certain information of public concerns on its website, based on freedom of expression (First Amendment) arguments.

The US Government made freedom of expression on the Internet one of the priorities of its foreign policy and this commitment must not be limited to the international arena.

There is growing international recognition that new media organisations and whistleblowing websites are creating new channels for political debate and activism and play a crucial role in maintaining transparency and democratic forms of government.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the US Government to follow this trend and adopt measures that enable - rather than restrict - the work of whistleblowers and new types of media. Such measures are also necessary to demonstrate that US Government foreign policy genuinely supports freedom of expression online and applies at home as much as it does overseas.

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