Homefront Confidential

Since March 2002, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has released a semiannual report on how the War on Terrorism is affecting “access to information and the public’s right to know.” The fourth edition of this report, Homefront Confidential, has just been released.

The 89-page report ranks threats to a free press on the same color-code used by the Department of Homeland Security:

  • Red (severe): Access to terrorism & immigration proceedings; restrictions on Freedom of Information Act requests
  • Orange (high): Covering the war; military tribunals
  • Yellow (elevated):The USA PATRIOT Act and beyond; The reporter’s privilege; The rollback in state openness
  • Blue (guarded): Domestic coverage

Homefront Confidential is a stark contrast to the kind of “information wants to be free” rhetoric I so usually find (and, I’ll admit, often speak) here in Silicon Valley. In my techno-optimistic world, information naturally flows straight from bloggers in the field to a public eager for news, with no gatekeepers between us. There is some truth to this notion, and blogs have been credited with breaking the Monica Lewinsky story and keeping Trent Lott’s racist remarks about Strom Thurmond in the public eye, as well as many other successes.

But while blogs and other Internet reporting can both accelerate a story’s propagation and occasionally magnify the voice of an eyewitness or whistleblower, most important news starts in the hands of a few important decision-makers. Without cooperation from the Justice Department, information about closed terrorism and immigration proceedings (including the detainees’ names) is simply not available. Without access to battlefields and military officers, details about our progress in war is not available. The government also has extensive powers to keep information bottled up, from criminal prosecution of whistleblowers under the Homeland Security Act, to legal restrictions on commercial satellite imaging companies, to use of subpoenas to force reporters to reveal their sources. These are all effective restrictions on the flow of information that aren’t deterred by the blogger’s nimble RSS feed.

Information wants to be free in this networked age, but the information that is most important for keeping our government in check is still behind several gatekeepers. In deciding the laws and policies of our land it’s important to remember the converse of this techie creed: Yes, information wants to be free, but freedom also requires information.