Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Article: Wikileaks and the creed of guerrilla transparency (with selected comments & research)

An interesting and maybe quite objective article from one of the Economist blogs "Democracy in America"


Dec 13th 2010, 17:35 by G.L. | NEW YORK

I’VE held back from adding to my colleagues' fascinating debate about Wikileaks on this blog (see our topic page on the subject), but since speaking at the "flash symposium" that Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) organised two days ago in New York City, I've been chewing over an idea about what Wikileaks presages.
But first, a few things that might be obvious, but need to be clear.
One, any reasonable person looking at the  list of leaks to date would agree that Wikileaks has done both good and harm. The world is better off for knowing about the procedures for dealing with prisoners at Guantánamo, a nuclear accident in Iran and the dumping of toxic chemicals in Côte d’Ivoire; on the other hand, those
whose names appeared as American informants in the Afghan war logs may be in danger, and normal diplomacy has suddenly become a lot harder to do.
Two, the current scandal isn't really about Wikileaks. It pulled skeletons out of other countries' closets for four years without suffering any serious ill-effects. Not until it obtained a serious stash of American secrets did it come under fire from the world's most powerful state. As Josh Marshall has pointed out, this is not really the Wikileaks story, but the Bradley Manning story, if indeed he was the source. (I would further suggest that Wikileaks was doing and could continue to do much more good in countries with a weak press and poor laws for the protection of whistle-blowing sources.)
Three, Wikileaks has evolved, and will continue to do so. In July, Julian Assange told The Economist that Wikileaks alone decided what was worth publishing and what harmful information needed to be cut out. Now, with the State Department cables, it is publishing only what the newspapers to which it released its archive have published first—in effect, adopting journalistic guidelines, as many have urged it to do.
Four, Wikileaks is, as a result, becoming accountable. Mr Assange told our interviewer that "the general public and our sources" held Wikileaks to account, but at the time it seemed clear that he was really answerable only to himself. That has now changed. Letting the newspapers set the publishing agenda is one example. Mr Assange's arrest and the sanctions imposed on Wikileaks by PayPal, Mastercard, Amazon and others are another—a tortured and intransparent kind of accountability, to be sure, the product of American governmental bullying rather than a public outcry, but it means that there is a price for overreaching, and Wikileaks is paying it.
Five, Wikileaks has overreached, but so have the authorities. This is the nub of what I had to say at PdF. Wikileaks' over-zealous publication provoked the government into a heavy-handed response. The attempts to shut Wikileaks down or cut off its oxygen led to a rapid proliferation of mirror sites and counter-attacks by hacker groups like Anonymous. Mr Assange may go to jail, Wikileaks itself may even close, and governments and intelligence agencies will adopt new, stricter measures to prevent the theft of information, including a return to more "compartmentalised" systems; but aWikileaks copycats are now appearing. These include OpenLeaks, founded by a former colleague of Mr Assange's, disgruntled with his master's imperiousness and political agenda—yet another example of Mr Assange being held to account. We are now, therefore, in an evolutionary arms race.
So, where next? Mark Pesce argued at PdF that the genie is now out of the bottle:
Just as the legal strangulation of  Napster laid the groundwork for  Gnutella, every point of failure revealed in the state attack against Wikileaks creates a blueprint for the press which can succeed where it failed.
I don't agree with much of Mr Pesce's utopianist vision of a "hyperconnected, hyperempowered future" in which "the state as we have known it [is] increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant". Power has a way of readjusting. The Gutenberg press, with which the internet is frequently compared as a socio-technological phenomenon, wrought huge upheavals in church and state authority, yet since then we have had the most authoritarian regimes history has ever seen. However, what's clear is that Wikileaks, whatever its particular fate, has triggered a new breed of guerrilla transparency movements that will learn from its mistakes.
Will these guerrilla leakers be more cautious and responsible, as Wikileaks itself is becoming, or even more radical, publishing any secrets they can get without thought to the consequences? The answer, I suspect, is that Wikileaks will be to guerrilla transparency what the Muslim Brotherhood was to political Islam: the precursor of a multitude of organisations, united by a general creed but ranging from moderate to extremely radical, from large to tiny, from constructive to destructive and from far-reaching to ineffectual.
It is far from clear, as yet, what the long-term result will be. Political Islam is decades-old and has at least tens of millions of adherents, but it has so far failed to unseat any significant regime and only caused many of the most autocratic ones to become more repressive. In the short term at least, guerrilla leaking is going to have the same effect. Mr Assange acknowledged as much in a much-quoted blog post a few years ago:
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.
Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
The bit about the increase in "secrecy tax" is spot-on. For this to lead to "system-wide cognitive decline", though, requires an unguessable level of "mass leaking". It's not clear, even for very repressive regimes with lots of opponents, what is mass enough.
And while for Mr Assange, "secretive or unjust systems" would appear to include any state with a security apparatus, the corollary of his own argument is that the amount of leaking required to force a relatively open and just state like America to become less secretive, rather than more, is probably stratospheric. In any case, no matter how many offspring Wikileaks spawns, without a corresponding number of Bradley Mannings to supply them, they will be largely powerless.

--> Interesting Comments:
- According to this report, there was disquiet among his colleagues about the failure to hide the names of informants: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/world/24assange.html?_r=2
- There is no evidence WikiLeaks disclosed the names of Afghan informants: http://bigthink.com/ideas/21807
- IT professionals will play a LARGE role in the evolution of what we call democracy.


Whether WikiLeaks has more positive or negative effects on the world, we might not be able to tell yet, but the interesting part is that it is setting an example for new similar organisations to rise in the future, which will evolve for better or worse and will definitely make a big difference in our near future. Hopefully, for the better.


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