Blogging and the tyranny of government

Michael Arrington, a prolific blogger in the Tech community, has written a thoughtful piece on bloggers’ right/duty to protect confidential sources in the face of government pressure to do otherwise.  I’d like to post a portion of that article here and ask you what you think of his arguments.  He says:

Last week two bloggers, Steven Frischling and Chris Elliot, were visited by TSA agents and threatened with jail time if they did not reveal their source of the TSA Travel Directive that they each published shortly after the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas day. Frischling caved immediately and handed over his computer. Elliot did not. Since then the Department of Homeland Security has dropped the subpoenas, but there is a bigger issue here. The protection of sources is a cornerstone of our freedom of speech.

As bloggers, we have a duty of confidentiality to our sources. And that means keeping information confidential even if threatened with the tyranny of government. And even if the legislatures and courts haven’t decided that as bloggers we have real rights protecting us from that tyranny.

I’ll never be surprised by a tyrannical government. In a sense, it’s their job. It’s our job as bloggers to stand up to that tyranny, even if our liberty has been threatened. Journalists have gone to jail rather than disclose their sources. If bloggers want the same level of respect, and protection from government by the courts, they need to stand up for what’s right.

And Frischling, when faced with the decision to do what’s right and go to jail, flailed badly. He willingly handed his laptop over to the government…

We have received a number of threats of lawsuits unless we revealed our sources around various sensitive stories. In each case we’ve either ignored the threats or told them to pound sand. In each case the other side backed down.

We’ve also had other situations where we’ve had to consider revealing sources…

I think I can understand how frightened Frischling must have been when the TSA agents showed up at his house. Even though he has has worked for Life, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, and was embedded with troops in Iraq, he “didn’t know what to do.” He caved, and he gave the agents his computer. From Wired:

“They were indicating there would be significant ramifications if I didn’t cooperate,” said Frischling, who was home alone with his three children when the agents arrived. “It’s not hard to intimidate someone when they’re holding a 3-year-old [child] in their hands. My wife works at night. I go to jail, and my kids are here with nobody.”…

What do you think:

  • Are bloggers private citizens or journalists?
  • Do bloggers have a duty of confidentiality?
  • Should bloggers be held to the same journalistic standards as journalists writing within the protected infrastructure of large organizations?
  • Should people like Frischling risk going to jail to protect their sources?
  • Is it the ‘job’ of government to protect their secrets through legal intimidation?

Eventually, these same issues will be forced upon us in the financial blogosphere.  The day is not too distant.

Update: I must be incredibly sleep-deprived because I overlooked the case of the Implode-o-Meter sites. They are taking an enormous hit right now because of their coverage on the housing bubble.  Please see my related article here.

All of Arrington’s piece is below.


The Tyranny Of Government And Our Duty Of Confidentiality As Bloggers – Tech Crunch

  1. Wag the Dog says

    How about, it depends. Refering back to your hypocrisy post, one can adopt a fuzzy-far smart sincere attitude to argue the case either way.And who could argue with Steven Frischling until you’ve actually suffered the same fate as Josh Wolf, the blogger who did go to jail for not cooperating with a US grand jury.Ultimately bloggers can be played as pawns just as any other journalist, like Judith Miller was played by the government in order to politically damage a whistleblower. In that case, confidentiality was not only entirely self serving but worked in government’s favour.Just as you pointed out regarding the financial penalty the smart sincere sometimes have to endure, a blind adherence to an ideology can lead to unintended consequences.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      Thanks for the reply and the links, which I am just about to read. I don’t have an answer to this question because it is partially a legal one and definitely a moral one. My general view is that a blogger should feel morally obligated to protect sources. In handing over sources, the blogger is violating a source’s trust – the consequence being a loss of trust in future and the knowledge that this loss is justified.

      Before one prints an article, one has to decide whether or not to live with the implications of that decision. So, on the whole, I lean toward protecting a source.

    2. Edward Harrison says

      The Judith Miller thing is a perfect example where one is justified in revealing the source because the source has violated someone’s trust and is not really a whistleblower. As you say, there are more shades of gray here than some would prefer.

  2. Matt Stiles says

    My answers to your questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and “I sure as hell hope not.”

    If it is government’s duty to protect secrets with legal intimidation, then we have a duty to oppose them by any means necessary. Government should have no secrets.

  3. fresnodan says

    “Are bloggers private citizens or journalists?”
    You lose the argument with the first question. I am a citizen, and my constitutional rights are inviolate, and if I happen to blog or work as a journalist, that is irrelevant to my rights. As a citizen, I have a right to question, investigate, petition, or complain as much as anyone else, be they blogger or journalist.

    Government has some NARROW responsibility to keep a FEW secrets. First and foremost, we should all demand what the rationale and evidence that the government has that the particular information in question NEEDS to be classified.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      Good points, Dan. Thanks.

  4. @jporter says

    Excellent post Edward, and some great questions. It seems to me that many bloggers don’t consider themselves journalists per se, but as their reach and influence grow they are increasingly being perceived as such. I think the government needs to step back and give this all some more thought. They are treating bloggers like journalists one one hand by requiring they disclose gifts, payments, etc. but not recognizing protections traditionally provided to MSM journalists. I don’t think they can have it both ways for long.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      those are great points. And I agree they really can’t have it both ways. In the end, I suspect the courts will decide this one for better or worse. if the rulings (like the one coming in the Implode-O-Meter case) turn out to be seen as unfavorable, I expect this will cause legislatures across the country to enact legislation.

      At this point, I don’t know what rights and protections bloggers can get unless there is some sort of clear delineation by credentialed affiliation to separate a random individual with a blog from more professional bloggers.

  5. Licere says

    Get the government out of anything and everything. Internet is the first and so far the last free space left for individuals to thrive. Let’s enjoy the liberty for once and fight all and every attempt to take it away from us.

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