Year of the Leak

2010 is the year of the leak. From the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries, to Cablegate, and the upcoming revelations about Bank of America, the website Wikileaks has driven the media debate, challenged American foreign policy, and proposed a new way to control governments and corporations. The hyperbole surrounding Wikileaks has been tremendous. Senators have demand the head of Julian Assange on the Senate floor, while Assange has compared himself to Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The allegations of rape, treason, and espionage make for a dramatic tale, but there are important questions to be asked. Is the absolute transparency of Wikileaks truly good for democratic governance? What balance of openness and privacy should we strive for in society? And what comes after Wikileaks?

Public transparency is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Citizens must know what the government does in their name, must know that public figures are capable and honest, so that if they are not they can be replaced. The traditional organ of transparency are the press. In the worlds of Thomas Jefferson, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” The press exists to monitor politicians, and inform the public, but it is also dependent on public officials for leads and quotes, and beholden to commercial advertising. The entertaining, familiar press is a fixture, but is less credible than ever before. There is a widespread sense among Americans that the news is not telling them the truth, that stories are slanted and incomplete.

Into this gap steps Wikileaks, with a radically different view of how information and the public should work. Wikileaks demands that all information be publicly accessible, that governments and corporations should be completely transparent, and that those who do not abide by these rules will be punished. But despite similar techniques, do not confused Wikileaks with the press; Wikileaks is a political organization with revolutionary fundamentally antithetical to the structure of contemporary society.

Julian Assange is deep, if unconventional political theorist, and at the heart of Wikileaks is his idea of the authoritarian conspiracy. Assange believes that the world is ruled by conspiracies, not in the “9-11 was an inside job, aliens exist, the Queen of England is a reptoid” way, but in a much more formal, mathematical idea that there are networks of power and influence which exert a great deal of control on events, to the detriment of people in general. This authoritarian conspiracies are the real structure of government, senior civil servants, politicians, industrialists and tycoons, and they collaborate to run the world system.

Assange wants to kill this conspiracy, and Wikileaks is his tools. Conspiracies and networks are hard to eliminate, there is no central commander to decapitate, new members rise up from the ranks. The continued battle against Al Queda shows how difficult it is to destroy a conspiracy. Instead of waging war on the powerful, Assange has targeted its infrastructure, the network of trust that allows the global authoritarian conspiracy to coordinate its actions. There is no specific information available to Wikileaks, rather its existence and ability to expose and embarrass authoritarian conspiracies forces them to spend time and energy on internal security, reduces the ability of conspirators to trust one another, and ultimately drives the conspiracy into paralysis. An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot communicate, cannot think, cannot act, and will ultimately be destroyed.

Is the American government an authoritarian conspiracy, as Assange describes them? From certain viewpoints, yes. The American government often acts in a secret, and has lied, deceived, and killed in the name of small, wealthy interests before. It represents only 307 million of the nearly 7 billion people on this planet. But on the other hand, domestic funding is publicly accountable, and the U.S. often acts the ‘global policeman’ to stop rogue states and weapons of mass destruction.

As Jaron Lanier lays out in an excellent essay, the internet is at its basis binary, on or off, totally open or completely closed. This feature is built into the core of the hardware that runs the internet, and is how Wikileaks is so successful. A poorly secured government network (SIPRNet) was penetrated by one of the three million users who had access. Once the alleged leaker, Private Manning, had passed the cables to Wikileaks, they were everywhere, and impossible to put back in the bag.

Data on the internet exists in only one of these two states, cursory openness or total secrecy, but real life is full of shades of gray. We tell things to our family we would not tell to our friends, which we would not tell to colleagues, which we would not tell a stranger on the bus and so on. Ultimately, without the privacy of out thoughts, the self as we know it would not exist. What Lanier fears is that Wikileaks, in seeking absolutely transparency, will instead create the opposite, a completely militarized state where information is tightly controlled. For fear of losing the crown gems of military secrets, the government might lock everything up.

For Bruce Sterling, Wikileaks and its founder are the physical and political embodiment of the Internet, of a hacker culture that delights in the coolness of information and access without much worry for the real consequences. There is a hacker belief in the power of Truth, and the equation of Truth with a lot of information. But for ordinary people, not computer nerds or hackers, information is blinding light, bleach that destroys privacy and personality. The opposite side of transparency in democracy is discretion, the ability of the public servants to speak only so much of the truth, because the whole truth will lead to chaos, not freedom.

That is the essence of what Wikileaks has done to American diplomacy in the wake of Cablegate. I doubt that there is much surprise in professional diplomatic circles over the contents of the tables. The corruption and lasciviousness of world leaders makes for fun gossip for the chattering classes, but the most likely result is that foreigners will be leery of sharing their candid assessments with American diplomats, and diplomats will be worried about sending those assessments on. Mutual griping, gossiping, and speculating is required to build informal communities of trust (or authoritarian conspiracies), and cannot be sustained when diplomats must examine every word for its public significance, not just the joint statements made at the end of prolonged negotiations. The sphere for public thought and action has drawn smaller.

I keep faith in the hacker credo that information is power, that information wants to be free, and that information can set us free. But Wikileaks is only the first step; information must be used by people to impact the world. Wikileaks itself has become more canny about this in its four year history, strategically providing the most provocative documents to the mainstream media first, but a brief flurry of indignation over the state of the world is not a solution. Even with their corruption exposed, most of the people featured in the Wikileaks cables are effectively beyond the reach of the law. Wikileaks espouses one way of dealing with them, based on shame, paranoia, and ever escalating cyber-attacks. But shame is only relevant in the eye of an increasingly jaded and distracted public. Paranoia effects the institutions we rely on as much as it effects malefactors, and cyber-attacks are a dead-end arms race that will only make computers and networks less useful.

Rather than the antagonize the world, as Wikileaks and those in government charged with responding to it have done, we should use this chance to have a conversation, not a trial. The US government should publicly make the case why its actions in exposed by Wikileaks have been for the good of the nation, and the world. And if your arguments cannot withstand public scrutiny, then it is time to find new policies, and new goals. What we need is not transparency, but candor.

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