The Tyranny Of Government And Our Duty Of Confidentiality As Bloggers

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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.

Easy To Say, Hard To Do

You could argue that it’s easy for me to make statements like this, since we blog about technology. The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t knock on my door very often demanding to know my source for the latest Google acquisition rumor. But if they did, I’d like to think I’d tell them to go to hell. Even if that meant they dragged me out of my house and put me in jail.

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. In March 2008 we wrote about acquisition negotiations between Digg and Google. The companie’s CEO Jay Adelson effectively called us liars, and we were sorely tempted to reveal our original source. But to do so would mean that people would know that under certain circumstances they couldn’t trust us. We want that trust to be unconditional, and so we took our lumps and never revealed the source. Later we had our vindication anyway.

We were challenged yet again in 2009 with the Last.fm/RIAA story where we believe at least one source, including an executive at Last.fm, lied to us. We haven’t, and never will, publish that information. Even though there’s an email string that would make excellent reading.

And there is a whole book I could write around the Twitter document fiasco from 2009. That book will never be written either.

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.”

His argument is that he received the email from an anonymous source via Gmail, so he wasn’t really handing over confidential information. But the TSA, seeing the email, can then easily get Google to hand over information around that Gmail account, and can likely track down the source. Any anyway, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, he lacked the courage to stand up for what’s right.

Anyone working with Frischling now knows that he’ll respect your confidentiality, just so long as it’s not inconvenient to his liberty. And that’s not respect at all. He let all bloggers down the other day when he willingly handed over his computer to the government. It was his duty to stand up to those agents, and even spend time in jail. Perhaps if he fought the whole situation in court it would lead to stronger laws protecting all bloggers. But Frischling didn’t do that, and the tyranny of our government went unchecked once more.

If I’m ever in the same situation as Steven Frischling I hope I have the courage to do what’s right. Not just what’s right for me right then.

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