So, the Wikileaks saga drags on. At least Oprah is gone from our shores…
The whole Wikileaks thing kind of fascinates me. It’s the archetypal immovable object up against the irresistable force. Freedom of speech (particularly of the press) and a desire for transparent government meets public safety, national interests and diplomacy. Chuck in an Australian with a God complex and a stated desire to change the way governments do business, a few tortured souls willing to sacrifice life, limb and well being in order to leak classified documents they’ve obtained illegally… it’s got all the hallmarks of a follow up to the Social Network – the UnSocial Network.
Part of me thinks transparent government is a good thing. Part of me is fascinated by the trainwreck as governments respond to the saga – Julia Gillard’s uninformed “this is illegal” is one such example. And doubtless it presents problems for governments involved – we’re not talking cynical dictators here, but democratically elected representatives who are trying to serve their people. Leaking information is reprehensible – it’s not up to a lowly member of the military to decide what state secrets come out, and it’s doubtless against their employment contracts (and of course, treasonous). Some information is dangerous. And a dangerous world is likely to require dangerous information – information that shouldn’t necessarily be broadcast to everybody, the problem with the Assange model is that it draws no distinction about who should receive what information. Which is naive. Why should Al Qaeda have access to the same information as the average American citizen about how the American government operates? That makes no sense. It’s not as though governments aren’t thinking about transparency themselves – they just err on the side of caution when it comes to disseminating information. Wikileaks errs on the side of stupidity.
The press has always been free to publish fruit from a poisonous tree – provided it’s in the public interest. And I reckon wikileaks, broadly speaking, falls into that category. They’re not stealing the documents themselves, hacking databases or surreptitiously accessing information from behind iron curtains – they’re simply a distributor. But a distributor with an agenda. Just like Fox. So while I reckon the leakers are in the wrong, I think it sets a dangerous precedent to go after the distribution channel rather than the leaker. Wikleaks simply represents the new media’s style of distribution. Too the masses, for the masses, by the masses. The “information is power” equation functions on the law of diminishing returns. More information available to more people doesn’t mean more power. It just robs power from those who previously held it. It’s diluted. In a lot of ways it’s better that the information is available to everybody than that it’s available to a select few on the black market. That’s part of having a free press and a commitment, in principle, to democracy. It’s one thing for Julian Assange to speak of getting rid of the US’s stranglehold on politcal power globally – but what do you replace it with? He’s a typical anarchist in some sense – he doesn’t seem interested in the future, just in displacing the present.
Attempts to control information in this day and age is like standing in front of a cracking dam wall and plugging the gap with you finger. It won’t work. And you’re going to get smashed when the wall cracks. I think that’s what this has taught me. I’d say governments are better off just aiming for complete transparency. The idea of not doing anything you’re ashamed of is as old as debates about privacy. But it works. If governments were more open to freedom of information requests and being transparent then there’d be less chance of damage happening through leaks. Give the people a torrent and it’s likely that bad news would be buried in the sheer volume – and when it surfaces you can always acknowledge that it was there and say “that’s why we’re making this information available”… the Internet is changing the way information can be disseminated and the management of the leaks, from a PR/news cycle perspective has also been interesting. It seems Julian Assange has no real editorial brain. He hasn’t done a great job at managing the flow of information, the bang to buck ratio is poor. Pushing a glut of information out there at once is guaranteed to bury some of the good stuff. Even if you pick a few strategic articles to promote the release by giving juicy exclusives to particular outlets. His strategy has been bad. His personal strategy has been pretty bad too – even though he’s won over a few celebrity campaigners who have adopted him as a cause de jour. The Swedish claims seem a little bit too convenient – but the man does appear to be a bit of a self-interested slimeball with delusions of grandeur.
Here are some good wikileaks articles for your perusal:
The Ugley Vicar considers the motivations behind Assange’s program. Including this quote about the function of wikileaks:
“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”
The Guardian, a mainstream paper who were the beneficiaries of some of Assange’s leaks asks questions about the motivation behind them and the changes the leaks might bring.
The Economist points out that wikileaks is just the tip of the iceberg, or rather, an example of how easily information can spread in the Internet – suggesting that plugging this leak won’t stop the dam bursting:
“Yet the debate over WikiLeaks has proceeded as if the matter might conclude with the eradication of these kinds of data dumps—as if this is a temporary glitch in the system that can be fixed; as if this is a nuisance that can be made to go away with the application of sufficient government gusto. But I don’t think the matter can end this way. Just as technology has made it easier for governments and corporations to snoop ever more invasively into the private lives of individuals, it has also made it easier for individuals, working alone or together, to root through and make off with the secret files of governments and corporations. WikiLeaks is simply an early manifestation of what I predict will be a more-or-less permanent feature of contemporary life, and a more-or-less permanent constraint on strategies of secret-keeping.”
Here’s an hour long documentary on Wikileaks that you can watch at your leisure.
After PayPal, MasterCard, and other financial institutions went after Assange and Wikileaks – 4Chan struck back for the internet, launching DoS attacks on their servers.
I’ll watch the inevitable movie though. So what do you reckon – is Assange a hero or a villain?