Some things truly haven’t been seen before. WikiLeaks might be one of them.

It’s hard to believe that the founding fathers could have ever imagined the possibilities of the Internet or a journalist like Julian Assange when they crafted the First Amendment.

If they were with us today they might well say they knew publishers they despised as much as some of our leaders today apparently do the editor-in-chief of the notorious website.

Yet the angry words of government officials and the swirling storm over whether Assange’s brand of journalism can be justified are overshadowing a potentially far more disturbing aspect of this story — the new power governments have to punish publishers.

It used to be that a publisher owned his own presses and while even the angriest of politicians might want to stop him from running them, there was essentially nothing they could do.

With the Internet, many of us believed that the power of the publisher had spread to everyone, that we lived in a time of press freedom that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

But the WikiLeaks case exposes the vulnerability of any publisher on the Internet. What’s happened to Assange and his website has deeply troubling implications for our society. And, no, we’re not talking about the damage some believe he’s doing to our national security by publishing classified records.

We’re talking about how democracy can be diminished when government uses its power to silence a voice it disagrees with. Even more worrisome is how this case has exposed how foreign governments may be able to use their own criminal investigations to hurt and potentially silence journalists beyond their own borders.

Today, it appears, notification of a criminal investigation is enough to force businesses whose cause is not the First Amendment to cut off a publisher the way Amazon, PayPal, Visa and Mastercard each have done WikiLeaks. (Disclosure: Civil Beat Publisher Pierre Omidyar is chairman of eBay, which owns PayPal.) Unlike the press barons of old, the executives of these businesses cannot tell their shareholders that it will hurt their company more to cave on a matter of principle than to drop a customer. It is their right and common practice to shut a customer down when they receive complaints from criminal investigators, even without a court order. This even though the existence of a criminal investigation is no indication of guilt.

The executives have a fiduciary duty to do what’s best for their shareholders. And if they didn’t respond to government warnings, they very well could risk their own business being shut down. The end result, we’re learning: A website can be cut off and cut down, even by a foreign government. The existence of a criminal investigation in a foreign country with values different from our own may be enough cause for these companies to shut off a customer.

Alas, the Internet is not free. Nor is it a place of unlimited freedom. We knew that about places like China. But until it became abundantly clear in the WikiLeaks case, not the U.S.A. Sure, it’ll be impossible for the government to ever remove what Assange has published from the Internet. This is a case where the cat is definitely out of the bag. But by taking the steps they have to shut down WikiLeaks, governments create a chilling effect on other publishers, making it less likely that information that sheds light on government policy and actions that citizens should know about becomes public.

Consider what the WikiLeaks case might mean for a local publisher. Even a news organization as young as Civil Beat has already received leaked documents from would-be whistleblowers. We’ve published articles based on those documents and could very well feel it’s the right thing to do to post them on the Internet, as is our practice with many stories.

What would happen if a prosecutor or government official went to the service that was hosting our news service and said we were the subject of a criminal investigation? Civil Beat, like other publishers, relies on payment services provided by a third party, be it PayPal or Visa and MasterCard. Without them, we don’t receive revenue. We also depend on third parties to host our website. Yet we’ve seen in the past week that those ties can easily be severed just by raising the specter of an investigation.

These threats are new tools to hurt publishers, not all of whom have the resources or resourcefulness of WikiLeaks but many of whom may have government secrets to share even more valuable, and potentially disturbing, to anybody in power.

It’s important that we not let anger against someone we may disagree with, even revile, blind us to how the very democracy we treasure can be diminished more by the actions of aroused government officials than by a news service that many believe is irresponsible.

Victory in punishing WikiLeaks could be hollow at best. A critical lesson we should take from what has happened is that the Internet is vulnerable to abuse by governments who want to silence those who expose them.

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