Axel Schmidt/Reuters
Julian Assange, founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, speaks via video link during a press conference on the 10 year anniversary of the group in Berlin, Germany, Oct. 4, 2016. Mr. Assange posted on Twitter Monday that his Internet access was "severed."

Julian Assange's internet cut: Does WikiLeaks have online access rights?

WikiLeaks claimed Monday that a 'state party' disrupted Julian Assange's internet access. Does he have the same online rights to freedom of expression as political dissidents, even if the WikiLeaks documents appear to be stolen? 

WikiLeaks posted a cryptic Tweet early Monday that said the internet connection of Julian Assange, its founder and a self-described foe of Hillary Clinton, had been “intentionally severed by a state party.”

The brief statement comes as WikiLeaks has started to publish thousands of apparently hacked emails written by John Podesta, the Clinton campaign manager, in an apparent effort to thwart the Democratic presidential nominee’s chance at the presidency.

The internet has been referred to by the United Nations and world leaders (including Mrs. Clinton) as an unprecedented medium for information-sharing, expression, and democracy, with many of them vowing to protect access. But WikiLeaks has complicated the subject of internet freedom, since much of the content it publishes appears to be stolen. What rights, then, does the organization and its founder and editor-in-chief have to connectivity protection? It depends on whom you ask.

Many Twitter users came out in defense of the contentious whistleblower Monday, with #FreeJulian a top trend through much of the day. The Obama administration, meanwhile, considers the recently released WikiLeaks documents “stolen,” and has said their publication raises questions about how to balance freedom of speech with legitimate security concerns.

WikiLeaks's claim about Assange's disrupted internet access could not be confirmed Monday. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesperson and Icelandic investigative journalist, did not reply to a request for comment. Neither did the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange has been voluntarily holed up since 2012.

The internet is one of Assange’s links to the outside world from the South American embassy, where he is avoiding extradition to Sweden on sex crime charges. He and his supporters claim the Swedish case is a pretense for him to be extradited to the United States, where he faces espionage charges for the leak of sensitive diplomatic cables, according to USA Today.

On Twitter Monday, WikiLeaks said it would leak more of the Podesta emails through “contingency plans.” The organization released its ninth batch of Clinton-related emails Sunday, with information about her strategies with black voters and the media.

The US intelligence community says Russia hacked Podesta’s email account and turned the emails over to WikiLeaks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks have denied Russia is the source of the emails. Such hacking has “nothing to do with Russia’s interests” said Mr. Putin last week at a business forum in Moscow.

The brief WikiLeaks statement on Twitter didn’t specify which “state party” it referred to. But Assange has been open about his hope to foil Clinton’s bid for the presidency. In an interview with a British television host, Robert Peston of the ITV network, six weeks before the Democratic National Convention, Assange said he personally opposed Clinton for two reasons: because of her “long history of being a liberal war hawk,” and because she is among those that wants to indict him for the release of diplomatic cables.

“We do see her as a bit of a problem for freedom of the press more generally,” Assange told Mr. Peston on June 12.

The feeling is mutual. Ever since WikiLeaks started to release sensitive diplomatic and political communications, it has posed an internet freedom dilemma for world powers, as Clinton said in a carefully-worded speech as secretary of State in 2011.

“Without security, liberty is fragile,” said Clinton at George Washington University. “Without liberty, security is oppressive.”

There, Clinton praised the vital role of “connection” technology for bringing about social and political change in Tunisia and Egypt, and criticized freedom of expression of offenders, including Cuba and Iran.

Speaking as a representative of the Obama administration, she also described the release of more than 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks as “stolen,” “as surely as if they had been snatched from a top-secret safe and spirited out in a briefcase, carefully separating them from the issue of freedom of speech,” the Monitor’s Gloria Goodale wrote at the time.

The WikiLeaks controversy brought into relief the question of this freedom, and who is entitled to it, Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World,” told Global Viewpoint Network editor Nathan Gardels in 2010.

The reality is that even before WikiLeaks, the focus of the domestic Internet debate was all about demanding more control of it – whether it’s to track Internet pirates or cyberterrorists or cyber-bullies. However, in the context of foreign policy, the debate is somehow always about “Internet freedom” and opposing the greater Internet control by the likes of China and Iran – all of it as if these other governments are somehow doing something that America itself is not doing in the domestic context.

The WikiLeaks saga has brought many of these contradictions into sharper context

At the same time, the United Nations and world leaders have also described the freedom of expression on the internet a fundamental and universal freedom. Then-French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner called in 2010 for an “international instrument” to support "cyber-dissidents – the same support as other victims of political repression."

"We should also discuss the wisdom of adopting a code of conduct regarding the export of technologies for censoring the Internet and tracking Web users," he wrote, in an op-ed The New York Times published in 2010, in which he compared the internet to Voltaire's "freedom of expression."

The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in July for the "promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet" which condemns any country that intentionally disrupts the internet access of its citizens. The resolution didn't refer to hacking or stolen information, and UNESCO didn't reply to a request for comment.

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