I’ve been racking my brain over the last few days since the whole Wikileaks / Cablegate story began escalating. I’ve been trying, in short, to find my own take and standpoint on Wikileaks and the reaction to their recent publication of embassy cables. I’ve discussed it over and over with friends who have either a journalistic or a web background, and been reading a lot. And only now, and very slowly, am I even able to articulate a clearer, emerging position.
So bear with me while I try to sort out my own thinking. And believe me, it needs sorting out, as this whole situation touches on so many issues from media to political theory, from democracy to internet regulation. Yes, it’s that big, and anyone giving you a simple answer to any question here is full of it. This is not the time for simple answers, or even simple questions.
First of all, as a disclaimer: I can only speculate on Julian Assange’s motives or character. I never met him, so I’ll try to keep speculation to a minimum. That said, right on into the eclectic heap that these arguments represent.
Transparency vs Private Negotiations
Transparency is good for democracy, and for mankind. However, not everything can (or should) be made transparent. Just like private conversations of citizens or individuals need to be protected from government (or corporate, for that matter) snooping, negotiations inside or between governments need some protection, too. In Clay Shirky’s words:
(…) human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness. People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon. Wikileaks plainly damages those abilities.
That doesn’t mean a free pass for backdoor deals, or that governments shouldn’t be held accountable – not at all. It means that in order to truly deliberate, everybody on the table needs to be able to voice their opinions without fear of repression or (in a media-driven age and context) publication. No space to do this means no open-minded, frank negotiations. Instead we’d get just another media theater, and truly that’s not what we need.
Who to blame?
On a pure who-to-point-a-finger-at level – and that includes legal and moral finger pointing – we need to ask ourselves: who do we want to blame, and for what? The arguments bounced around are manifold, and they range from weakening the state to treason (on Wikileaks’ side) to intransparency, bullying or abusing power (on several governments’ side). The blame game is, of course, a game that only knows losers: If we decide to go down that path (and it seems like that decision was made awhile ago) then we all lose. Was Wikileaks wrong in publishing the cables? Was it the US government’s fault not to share the information voluntarily? Or maybe a single member of the US army is to blame? Are we to blame for being like Faust, who wants to know everything, and Assange is just like Mephisto, offering us the secret knowledge? This cycle of questions leads nowhere.
I am curious, though, to see where the legal discussions surrounding Assange’s prosecution and arrest will lead us – that might be a different story altogether. (Keep in mind that Assange as an Australian citizen and Wikileaks are not beholden to the US government, nor is the US government accountable to non-US citizens, yet all of them are wrapped into layers and layers of international law.)
Is Assange right or wrong, and who takes the bullets?
A sister to the blame question, but with a slightly different focus: Was it “right” (whatever that means) that Assange sought out and published the cables? I think this question really missed the point: it just doesn’t matter at this point, it’s moot.
I’m wondering: who will take the bullets, who will end up owning the risks and costs associated with the whole mess? On a direct line of action-and-reaction, Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who gave Wikileaks the leaked data, might be the most direct casualty (if that term fits here) of the leaks. Potentially there’s some political fall-out within the embassies and in diplomatic circles. More indirectly, though: could the leaked cables lead to major political fall-out regarding North Korea or Iran? (Not that this necessarily matters if critical information was withheld from the public.) What will happen to the supporters of Wikileaks, those inside and outside the core team that may, or may not, agree with Assange’s course of action?
We don’t know yet what will happen to Assange after his arrest. But I’d wager that he won’t (and can’t) take the bullets for all the others who are now out there, involved in many different ways, in a conflict that is complex at best, devastating at worst. And that is played out with no open, reliable ground rules at all.
Has Assange ruined Wikileaks?
Has he ruined Wikileaks, and if so, is this maybe his right as the founder? (And I’m saying this without any idea how many people are involved directly or losely.) The whistleblower platform has, it seems, become important way beyond one person. Or has he become, more than ever, Wikileaks, now that some members are distancing themselves from the platform? It seems, though, that Wikileaks is taking a lot of hits about this affair; or maybe this is the whole point of Wikileaks: to create, or highlight, pain points of sorts, and pushing over the edge is an inherent part of the platform? I’m really undecided on this one.
Due process is key for democracies
An absolute core point is that no matter how you twist and turn it, due process is key for democratic governments. In a democratic society there are clear rules (including, but not limited to laws). I strongly urge you to read Clay Shirky’s thoughts on this:
I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.
That’s really it: as the government, you have to work inside the law, the system, your mandate. Never ever may a US senator lean on private corporations to circumvent the rule of law, like Joe Lieberman did when he pressured Amazon to remove Wikileaks from their hosting service. Any action like this damages democracy and trust in the democratic so badly it’s hard to imagine that it can be reversed. (Although I hope and guess that eventually it will.) It certainly legitimizes those undemocratic, repressive regimes that the US usually fights, and that the internet usually helps bring more freedom to.
This kind of mafia-style bullying just adds more oil to the fire, and to increase the gaps between even the moderates on both sides of the aisle. If you’re not for us, you’re against us? This time, both sides play it. (Or maybe there are more than two sides here? It seems like it.) The tone is growing more and more hostile the more the conflict escalates. I condemn parts of Assange’s actions, parts of the US government’s actions. Either way, I get (rhetorical) flac because I cannot, and do not want to, side with one side only. There simply doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong – both sides, I’d wager, are behaving grossly wrong and unethical at this point.
The conflict escalates
As things unfold, the conflict is escalating quickly. After the initial political fall-out, and the US gov’t leaning on Amazon and (probably) other companies – resulting in Amazon not hosting Wikileaks, neither PayPal nor VISA or Mastercard accepting donations on their behalf – now new players are entering the equation. Anonymous, the global hacker group, have been running attacks on a number of sites including PayPal.
And this is still fairly early in the game: Expect more to come over the next few weeks. Will Sweden extradite Assange to the US? If so, what will they do with him? What’s going to happen on a global political stage regarding those cables, North Korea, Iran? How many lines will the executive branches of the US and European countries over-step?
The bigger picture: What happens to Internet regulation?
What I’m most concerned about at this point is: what will happen six months from now? So far, the internet is regulated through some legal layers, but mostly through private/industry and technical agreements. It looks to me like this is going to change, quickly, and not to the better. Years of multi-stakeholder negotiations (think IGF and all) might be in vain now, if the US government pushed ahead in the same style they’ve shown so far in this conflict.
RWW’s take on Wikileaks and the open web:
The ability for Internet companies and Internet users to be able to create and share without government intervention is not just a mark of free society. The tech industry pays a lot of lip service to the “open Internet,” arguing that it is the very thing that has fostered innovation in and growth of the industry. The filters, monitors, blocks, and blacklists associated with repressive governments, so the argument goes, serve not just to prevent access to information but to stifle creativity and entrepreneurship.
No matter how one justifies the actions of Amazon and the like – Terms of Service or otherwise – the events this past week have not simply demonstrated the spinelessness of certain companies to stand up to government and public pressure; they have pointed to some of the weak links in the “open Internet,” those points of control that are particularly important (and seemingly particularly vulnerable).
We’ll know very soon, I’m afraid, if our relying on US-based companies for all we do on the web will turn out to be a mistake, and if the web can stay free for all. My fear is, and I can’t stress this enough, that the web will be “collatoral damage” in this conflict, getting tracked and supervised and simply an un-free place.
Let’s hope it won’t.
However, there is an upside, too. In the wake of Wikileaks, at least we have a great, inspired even, debate on the role of traditional media:
Wikileaks has ignited a debate about the rights and responsibilities attached to freeing information.It has illustrated that Governments, however well intentioned, do not have the best judgement in terms of what it is right for citizens to know. It has shown that the established media no longer necessarily gets to make that call either, and forces us all to think about the consequences of that shift.
These questions are more pressing even than the constant din about finding new business models to sustain purpose. Finally we are talking about purpose first.
How many news organisations now feel differently about how to host and serve content across the web in the wake of Amazon using its commercial prerogative to kick Wikileaks off its servers? How many correspondents and editors would balk at ruining long term relationships with the State Department to publish classified material of the leaked cables-type?
(…) Journalism is not just an intermediary in this, it is part of this. Journalists need to know what they think about the mission of Wikileaks and others like it, and they need to know where they would stand if the data dropped onto their desks and the government pressured them to be silent.
Phew. Curious to hear your thoughts.