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 a 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.


  1. Of note:

  2. Excellent essay, and thanks for that link ... sir arthur conan the barbarian.

    hmm... so the Zimbabwe thing is an example of a _good_ conspiracy, or at least a bad conspiracy for which the ends justify the means. Assange was successful in his mission to expose it, but did wrong in doing so. Interesting. Backwards.

  3. Great link.

    Yes, the difference between an authoritarian conspiracy and small efforts to save the world are merely intent; the techniques are the same. In attacking one, Wikileaks also harms the other. If you haven't already, you read the Lanier piece linked in the article. He says it better than I, but Wikileaks is a binary technology, the real world runs on shades of gray and lots of levels of access.

    There's a lot more that I can and should write on Wikileaks, about the breakdown of social trust, about how individuals and institutions can be candid without harming their interests, and about how we can maintain perspective in the face of a leak, but this is a good start. What do you want to hear more on?

  4. So I don't really buy it.

    Author of said article claims that "wikileaks has set back the cause of Democracy in Zimbabwe". But on the contrary, wikileaks has in fact increased transparency in Zimbabwe. So the anti-Mugabe party was talking with the state department, and it turns out they were encouraging the sanctions against Zimbabwe.

    Don't that party's supporters in Zimbabwe have a right to know that?

    What do the people want, crippling Sanctions now, for the hope of Democratic elections in the future?

    If they don't actually want that trade, then for the anti-Mugabe party to call itself the "democratic" party is a bit of a farce isn't it.

  5. Given that Mugabe's political party has widepsread control of the media in Zimbabwe and can use this information to unilaterally advance a narrative against the party pushing for democratic reforms, I would say that this definitely sets back the cause of democracy in Zimbabwe. Transparency is a useful trait of a successful democracy, but they are not one and the same.

  6. @beck :

    I mean, you're technically correct, but I think missing the reality of the situation. Sir Arthur Conan the Barbarian ( hereafter abbreviated as SACtB ) makes better points than I have. But basically, you have this ideal of "don't lie to your people and make backroom deals". This ideal is fine, but you're complete screwed if you're competing against a party that is willing to do essentially arbitrarily unethical things to stay in power. Lying to the people about UN sanctions was the more utilitarian approach because Mugabe's party was out they lying even worse ( and killing and god knows what ). And I mean, even if Tsvangirai is somehow more corrupt than the ideal leader ( he isn't, but even if he were ),he is substantially better at the whole not-killing-everyone in Zimbabwe thing. Yeah .. Beck, your argument holds only if the Zimbabwean people can get all the information in the proper context, which won't be happening.

    @biff :

    Lanier's piece doesn't feel quite right. Maybe it's just my prejudice in favor of Wikileaks.

    Of course Wikileaks is biased. Its biased toward ideologies and political stances I mostly agree with. It is biased toward leaks that promote the organization's anarchist agenda. It is biased toward putting power into the hands of hackers and lone individuals. I trust these individuals more than I trust a whole lot of government, because they aren't motivated my money, they are motivated by ideology, and maybe a little bit of power. The assumption is that if they accrue excessive power they will be brought down using the same means they used to gain power : information. Information is far cleaner than a small war or a coup. My understanding is that the current staff of Wikileaks decided that Assange had gone mad ( or at least, obnoxious and useless ) with power, and they defected to form OpenLeaks. Assange and his ideology may be on the way out, but the I do believe that the information leaked over the last several years has done more good than harm ( much like Tsvangirai believed that the UN sanctions would ultimately do more good than harm ).

    Lanier loses me on the claim that openness is stifling and that an open world will cause people to cease to exist in favor of machines. I mean, that's fun speculation, but I think its pretty meaningless. In his example of universal telepathy, I think the more likely outcome would be that we would become more tolerant of 'thought crimes', and adopt social means of self-policing to make society functional. This specific example might actually dissolve all conflict by permitting perfect empathic communication, but thats another debate for another time. '

    Lanier says that information without structure is less useful than information with structure, but if the structure is being used against you or your interest, the reverse is true. Lanier notes that the leaked documents are skewed toward a US-centric viewpoint, but this has always been obvious. I don't remember Wikileaks ever claiming cablegate was anything other than what it was : a disorganized collection of weakly classified US diplomatic cables. Lanier says that leaks are insufficient, but I argue that they are a useful first step. But honestly, after reading about that Zimbabwe leak, its obvious Wikileaks didn't do their job with respect to censoring cables that would make things demonstrably worse if released. That's pretty disappointing.

    Anyway, Lanier may be right, I really can't say. I had trouble following his arguments, but can offer nothing better.

    except this.

  7. Hmm... Lanier seems to state that Wikileaks is too biased, while the Zimbabwe nonsense indicates that Wikileaks is not biased enough.

  8. 'Democracy' was definitely the wrong word for the Economist to use. If Mugabe were to turn popular opinion against Tsvangirai, it would not be democracy that's suffering (after all, the people now have what they want -- a Mugabe government! right?) but good government. These are two of the three things that Americans commonly confuse:
    (a) democracy
    (b) good government
    (c) government that lets the US walk all over it.

    Beck, you like to speak in terms of a right to information, but that's only useful if the people on the other end know how to interpret that information correctly. To get something sensible out of democracy and transparency you need an educated and engaged population, which Zimbabwe clearly doesn't have. And neither does the United States, or so it seems. In this context it seems like a benevolent dictatorship would be superior. Of course we have no idea how to get there, either.

    “The truth has never been of any real value to any human being - it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.” --Graham Greene

    I think the real value of Wikileaks is or could be in stopping governments from fighting wars, as the atomic bomb has already done in certain cases. If you know that all your troop movements are going to be broadcast on the Internet, it makes it that much less worth it.

  9. The Atlantic, not the Economist (sorry, but errors of attribution are especially irksome).

    I think the concern is not primarily with shifting public opinion, but with the leaked cables being used as pretense by Mugabe to bring criminal charges against Tsvangirai or to abandon the coalition government entirely. In the sense that this would hamper the reforms MDC are pushing, it is a very direct blow to democracy in Zimbabwe. And given that MDC was winning in first round voting in 2008 before Tsvangirai's withdrawal, it would be very difficult to argue that the people want a Mugabe government.

    Lastly, I'm glad that this, as all discussions on the internet must, has turned into a listing of the faults of Americans. Comparing the apathy/disillusionment/ignorance of some American voters to the massive poverty and attendant lack of access to information of the majority in Zimbabwe is laughably absurd.

  10. Yeah, sorry about the error. I forgot those were actually two different publications.

    But. I was not comparing anything to anything. Nor was I listing anything. I was illustrating a larger point. Of course I drift toward examples closer to home, because I know more about them. This is a fault of Americans too, it's my fault.