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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Conscience, Edward Snowden, and the Internet

Has civil disobedience gone too far?

Brian Green

As part of the Markkula Center's yearlong series of talks on conscience, the Markkula Center's Director of Campus Ethics Programs, David DeCosse, and Director of Internet Ethics, Irina Raicu, discussed Edward Snowden and whether his release of government spying information could legitimately be called an act of civil disobedience. This is a summary of that discussion.

DeCosse began with a description of legitimate civil disobedience: It intends the public good; it tries proper channels first; the action contemplated is commensurate to the size of the problem; the actor seeks to minimize harm, voluntarily discloses his or her identity, accepts punishment; and so on. Based on these criteria, DeCosse said that Snowden's actions were not civil disobedience, but neither were they the actions of a traitor. Snowden was intending the good of the public and disclosed his identity, but he did not use proper channels, used disproportionate means, and fled to escape punishment.

DeCosse continued with some of the complexities of the case, for example its many polarizations: the individual vs. the state, freedom vs. power, transparency vs. secrecy. All these values have relative weights that must be considered, and not all people will come to the same conclusions on how they ought to be weighted. In our contemporary society information is power, and secrecy is an imbalance in power. In the perspective of some such as Snowden, to restore balance, information should be liberated from unjust secrecy. By sharing knowledge widely, the powerful and the less powerful are brought closer to parity.

But DeCosse explained that this view of knowledge is more of a procedural than substantive view. Particles of knowledge are not wisdom; just knowing things does not make good things happen. Free data is not good in itself; it needs to be freed for a good purpose. Neither did Snowden first pursue whistleblowing to lawmakers, he just went directly to the media.

Raicu began by making a few distinctions. First, she distinguished Aaron Schwartz, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and groups like Anonymous, and explained that she was focusing specifically on Snowden. Then she discussed her perspective as one raised in Communist Romania, where state power was very oppressive. Coming from that perspective, she was sympathetic towards Snowden's revealing of secrets that indicate overstepping of government power.

According to Raicu, because there were no protections for whistleblowers and no proper channels to utilize, it made sense that Snowden used what channels he could. Furthermore, she argued that we should protect whistleblowers who are trying themselves to protect the public good, and that means putting in place appropriate channels for whistleblowers, so that they will not be forced to act in ways so far outside the system. And before we ask why Snowden did not stay to face his punishment ought we not first to ask if a punishment would be the right thing to do? Raicu also said that the moral character of the whistleblower should not matter. We need the information, and it doesn't matter from whom.

Overall, Raicu argued, Snowden's acts have been very beneficial for transparency in US government, revealing, for instance, that certain courts had been attempting to supervise spying activities, but were consistently ignored. She called this a "corrosive" level of secrecy, where even the supervisory court was denied the ability to do its job. The further government response to the information was also revealing: first they declared there had been no abuses of power, then, faced with Snowden's information, they had to acknowledge that there indeed were abuses, but claimed they were few and not intentional, then faced with further evidence they backtracked again, to acknowledging comparative few abuses and at least not uncorrected... but how can we believe what is said when we already know we have been lied to? She ended by saying that Snowden's fate is being watched. How he is treated will determine whether we get future whistleblowers.

Brian Green is assistant director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Feb 14, 2014