Five thoughts on WikiLeaks

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 12/08/2010 - 21:02

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. [ ... ] We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, [...]

Great ideals, sure, but what about WikiLeaks? Who in this day and age would vocally and publicly support tools that would "[circumvent] politically motivated censorship" when these crazies could be terrorists being censgored by a friendly government, or when their "free speech rights" could be potentially tied to copyrighted material?

Those were the words of Secretary Clinton, speaking earlier this year Hat-tip to BoingBoing. Kinda less relevant today, huh?

WikiLeaks has changed political discourse, and quite possibly the path of the Internet's evolution. I can't claim to have completely digested my own views on this, but here's a start, and some links to a lot of great thoughtwork on the situation.

1) Maybe this is the world we want. Long discussions about the value of a hegemonic global political system and its values on stability (at the cost of human rights, generally speaking) aside, the USA's political power is in flux right now, and possibly fading out. Do we want another superpower to emerge and dominate the world? USA, for all our foibles, has some strong ideals around democratic rule and human rights. We don't always practice those, but they're at least core to our political discourse. A truly multipolar world needs global-level democracy, and it's tools like wikileaks that begin to create that. Well, that, and a roving band of crypto-anarchists who get pissed off at this ham-handedness and decide to take the websites of mastercard and visa down. And Wikipedia. And torrent-sharing sites. Any tool that's good at promoting human rights in repressive regimes is also good at enabling dissidents, whistleblowers, pedophiles, and people swapping mp3 files. You don't get to pick and choose who uses these things, and trying to do so destroys their value immediately. These tools also lend themselves towards mob rule, so we need to choose our next steps carefully. As a side note, if you really disapprove of harshly, externally-enforced transparency of what you consider private details, then I really hope you're not reading this from a link on Facebook.

2) It's OK to be a Voltaire here. While not technically his own words, he certainly held and espoused the concept: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Wikileaks is being, well, over the top and careless in what it's releasing. The Collateral Murder video seems pretty clearly whistleblowing. The cable leaks are un-aimed. Clay Shirky summed this up solidly:

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. [...]

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

It's OK, if not strongly encouraged, to be not a big fan of WikiLeaks, but still supportive of their right to exist and disseminate "leaked" information. Would the US be upset if this was a leak of internal Chinese diplomatic ramblings, or North Korea, or Iran -- or would we be chalking another success up for "the little guy" in the global struggle for democracy and freedom of speech? We're all sovereign States here, at some level, there should be at least an illusion of equal rights among States.

3) Don't be Grand Moff Tarkin. Yeah, a Star Wars reference for good measure. The actual reference is to some parting advice from Leia on his tough stance around the use of force to put down rebels; "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." As an anonymous commenter on the BoingBoing story above said;

I think you misunderstood what she said. The attacks are the tool. Just look at the effect its had on wikileaks. Its gone from being hosted on a single server with rather unsafe DNS etc to being mirrored over 1000 times across the world!

Truely this government is driving the development of anti-censorship tools and increasing the power of free speech online.

This is the first of many problems of this sort, and here we are showing off all the tricks in our playbook. Over at Crooked Timber, Henry puts it more succinctly:

The US response to Wikileaks has been an interesting illustration of both the limits and extent of state power in an age of transnational information flows. The problem for the US has been quite straightforward. The Internet makes it more difficult for states (even powerful ones such as the US) to control information flows across their own borders and others. [The jurisdictional problems of the Internet] makes it much harder for the US and other actors to use the traditional tools of statecraft[...]

However, there is a set of tools that states can use to greater effect. The Internet and other networks provide some private actors with a great deal of effective transnational power. Banks that operate across multiple jurisdictions can shape financial flows between these jurisdictions.

The Internet has this amazing and annoying problem that's baked pretty deeply in to its architecture - it is designed to move information as efficiently as possible. This makes censorship attempts backfire every time. Somehow, no one has learned this.

4) Shooting the messenger is a fast way to being uninformed. Disabling, hobbling, and otherwise subjecting tools to political will is a very dangerous path. Amazon has a great business around providing "elastic" computing and hosting services to companies, and I'm going to bet that anyone using Amazon's services is re-examining their hosting choices right about now. Breaking the DNS system to take the main wikileaks site off the web -- I'm sure that sounded like a brilliant idea, and it's going to reignite a debate around the US's control of huge swaths of the DNS system, and probably make that power very difficult to enact both politically and technically. Again, the trust in what was considered a trusty tool has been eroded, and anyone working on hot-button issues is going to take extra care such that they have secondary systems to provide future resiliency against a similar attack. Beyond the points made in (3), we're hurting normal business that trusts these services to be reliable. Ethan Zuckerman has a good Q&A about this at the Columbia Journalism Review

5) Don't forget the real story. Did Julian Assange actually commit a crime in the US? He's not a citizen, he didn't do any of this in the US, and he's not the one who stole the classified documents. And he hasn't been charged with a crime (in the US, yet). Are we really pursuing someone for re-broadcasting already leaked, classified documents? That worked so well with the Pentagon Papers.

Hey, at least we live in interesting times.

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