A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 28, 2011
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While most of the recent coverage of WikiLeaks has focused on Assange’s trial, an important bit of news is the alleged conflict between Bank of America and the organization.

WikiLeaks apparently has some documents that would be damaging to Bank of America. This is hardly surprising, given the sort of financial misdeeds that seem to have been business as usual for many of the big financial companies. Apparently the security company of HBGary Federal saw this as an opportunity and developed a rather nefarious plan that involved attempting to discredit WikiLeaks by submitting false information to the site, to expose those who have contributed to WikiLeaks and by launching attacks on journalists who have expressed sympathy for WikiLeaks. In addition to the security company, it also appears that the well connected law firm of Hunton & William and even the United States Justice Department were also involved to some degree.

In response to this, Anonymous (a self-proclaimed defender of WikiLeaks) launched a counterattack on HBGary Federal and its head, Aaron Barr. Ironically, Anonymous was able to  hack the security company and revealed not only the plans in question but also such things as the fact that Barr’s wife intends to divorce him. They even revealed the name of his WoW character, a level 80 Night Elf Druid. That is certainly an interesting nerdtastic touch.

On the face of it, it seems that HBGary Federal and Barr reaped what they had sown. After all, by engaging in such activities and planning to engage what certainly seem to be unethical and even illegal activities, they certainly seem to deserve to be exposed and even subject to punishment. Since the authorities appear to not be inclined to take action in regards to these activities,  it could be argued that this was a state of nature situation which justified Anonymous in taking action in its own defense and the defense of others. This could thus be seen as a falling nicely within John Locke’s theory regarding self defense and punishment in the state of nature.

It could, of course, be objected that Anonymous is in the wrong. After all, Anonymous launched some minor attacks against companies such as PayPal  for ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. Also, WikiLeaks itself has engaged in activities that some consider unethical and illegal. On these assumptions, it could be thus argued that HBGary Federal was acting in an ethically acceptable manner by trying to stop wrongdoers and to protect  Bank of America and others from the danger posed by WikiLeaks and its allies. As such, HBGary Federal could be seen as acting as a vigilante. Of course, vigilantism might strike many as morally questionable so perhaps it is better to cast the company as acting within a cyber state of nature. In this state, the company has to act in ways that seem to go beyond the law because its chosen opponents (Anonymous, WikiLeaks, supporters, and journalist) are beyond the reach of the law.

The main and most obvious flaw in this objection is that while Anonymous and WikiLeaks have endeavored to remain outside of the reach of certain authorities, the authorities do have the means to impose their laws upon them. Even if they are regarded as criminals, they would thus still seem to be within the state of society and thus can legitimately expect to not be subject to unlawful action and vigilante style attacks. While it might be argued that Anonymous and WikiLeaks act as vigilantes and thus can be justly subject to vigilante attacks, this would be on par with arguing that criminals can be treated in criminal ways because they are criminals. It would also appear to be a case of a “two wrongs make a right” fallacy.

If Anonymous and WikiLeaks were, in fact, beyond the reach of the law and were engaged in wrongful acts, then a case could be made for vigilantism. After all, if the wronged parties had no recourse to the law, then they would seem to have the right (as per Locke) to seek to stop the wrongdoers and gain reparation for the damage done. However, this does not seem to be the case at all.

A second flaw is that the journalists that were supposed to be targeted were obviously not in a state of nature or beyond the law. If the journalists had acted in illegal ways, then they could be dealt with within the legal system. Naturally, it could be objected that since the journalists cannot be stopped via legal means, they must be stopped via what seem to be illegal (and what seem to be clearly unethical means) means. This objection would, of course, have some merit if the journalists were in the wrong and were being protected by unjust laws. However, this does not seem to be the case and the objection has no real merit. As such, it seems that a company was acting outside of the law and was hoisted by its own petard.

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6 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2011 at 8:35 am

    From the Glenn Greenwald piece in Salon linked by Mike:

    The exemption from the rule of law has been fully transferred from the highest level political elites to their counterparts in the private sector. “Law” is something used to restrain ordinary Americans and especially those who oppose this consortium of government and corporate power, but it manifestly does not apply to restrain these elites.


    If one truly believes this, and I think Glenn does, how do you ever arrive at the conclusion that even more government is needed to solve these problems? It is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

    • Asur said, on February 28, 2011 at 10:27 am

      I agree. In fact, your comment deserves a soundtrack just for using that metaphor.

      David Bowie seems most appropriate:

  2. Asur said, on February 28, 2011 at 10:42 am

    “They even revealed the name of his WoW character, a level 80 Night Elf Druid.”

    That’s pretty funny, although if he’s level 80 that suggests the character is currently inactive what with cata and all. Maybe he stopped playing his druid because they screwed up treeform.

    RIP, Mr. Dead Broccoli. You are not forgotten.

    Since we’re talking about states of nature and society here, the state of nature and the state of society seem to be mutually exclusive relational states between particular individuals.

    Hence, if two people are in a state of society together, they can never be in a state of nature relative to each other so long as they are within that same society, regardless of what else is going on. Similarly, two people in separate, unrelated societies will always be in a state of nature relative to each other so long as they are not members of the same society. Of course, agreements between societies would seem to constitute mergers to the extent that those agreements exist.

    This is the foundation from which I rejected your notion of a universal standard of justice, Mike.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm

      He was probably busy doing whatever it was that is causing his wife to divorce him. But, that is usually WoW. Hmm, another mystery…

      They certainly did nerf the tree. But, I am glad that I do not have to watch the druid healers doing the dancing/jumping tree thing. Why did they have to jump around?

      I would agree that two people cannot be in the SON and the SOS at the same time and in the same way. However, there could be mixed states. For example, if I were to ambush my mortgage holder in an alley, we’d be SON in that regards. However, the mortgage contract would still be a SOS situation.

      • Asur said, on February 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm

        “For example, if I were to ambush my mortgage holder in an alley, we’d be SON in that regards. However, the mortgage contract would still be a SOS situation.”

        Interesting! I agree with that example, but I’m not sure that it represents a mixed state. This is how I see the sequence:

        1: You, your mortgage holder, and the mortgage contract are all in a SOS initially.

        2: You ambush the holder. By violating its SOS, you are now in a SON to the entirety of your host society, including the holder and the contract, who are likewise now in SON to you.

        3: If, as a result of this, the host society does anything other than exile or execute you, it has accepted you back into its SOS, which by extension brings you back into SOS with the holder and the contract.

        I define all criminal activity like this: An act is criminal if it involves operating within an SOS as if one were in an SON; the judicial process serves to readmit you to the SOS. Although even a minor crime involves what could be an immediate and permanent shift into an SON relative the host society, the laws of the host ‘forgive’ you back into the SOS by stipulating a penalty less than death or exile.

        Hence, you never existed in a mixed state.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2011 at 4:48 pm

          I wouldn’t agree that by ambushing him we leave the SOS entirely. In regards to the ambush, there is a temporary leaving in that regard. But this does not result in a complete SON. Now, if I went beyond the ambush and rejected all membership in society, then that would be a total SON state. I would be, as Locke said, like a wild beast.

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