How to Think About Wikileaks – A great set of concepts and perspectives

In the days since WikiLeaks began releasing a small percentage of its cache of 250,000 cables sent by State Department officials, many people have tried to think through the event’s implications for politics, media, and national security.

Writers pulling at the knot of press freedom, liberty, nationalism, secrecy and security that sits at the center of the debate have produced dozens of fantastic pieces. We’re collecting the very best here. This page will be updated often. New links will be floated near the top of this list.

Send suggestions to amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com.

Evgeny Morozov on whether Assange is actually anti-secrecy. [Christian Science Monitor]

The more I learn about Julian Assange’s philosophy, the more I come to believe that he is not really rooting to destroy secrecy or make transparency the primary good in social relations. His is a fairly conventional – even if a bit odd – political quest for “justice.”

As far as I can understand Mr. Assange’s theory – and I don’t think that it’s terribly coherent or well thought-out- he believes that one way to achieve justice is to minimize the power of governments to do things that their citizens do not know of and may not approve of if they do…

Here we mustn’t forget that Assange made a name for himself in computer circles by being one of the key developers of a software application that helped users – and particularly human rights activists in authoritarian regimes – to encrypt and protect their data from the eyes of the authorities. So I don’t think that Assange opposes “secrecy” altogether; for him, it’s really all about keeping the government in check.

Johan Lagerkvist on the impact of the forgotten man in all this, Bradley Manning. [Yale Global]

The latest WikiLeaks episode reminds us that the weakest link in officialdom is the individual. This time his name was Bradley Manning. In the age of social media it takes only one disloyal or conscience-stricken employee, one skilled “hacktivist,” to disseminate encrypted oceans of information, logistically impossible in pre-internet days. The diplomacy of nations has always been a highly vulnerable endeavor but, since the explosion of social and commercial networks online, there are now innumerable possibilities for renegade organizations and individuals to expose, destroy and retreat. As with the “war on terror,” contestation is about powerful and hard-to-target asymmetrical relations, which is why elite politics and high-level diplomacy are under more pressure than ever. (Added 12/8/2010, 2:19pm)

Ethan Zuckerman on the Internet as a public and commercial space. [Columbia Journalism Review]

What’s really hard about this is that we perceive the web to be a public space, a place where you should be able to go and set up your soapbox and say whatever you want to say to the world. The truth is, the web is almost entirely privately held. So what happens here is that we have a normative understanding that we should treat this like public space–that you should have rights to speak, that no one should constrain your rights–but then you discover that, basically, you’re holding a political rally in a shopping mall. This is commercial speech, controlled by commercial rules.

Clay Shirky on what WikiLeaks means for press freedom. [cshirky.com]

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

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.

The Economist on WikiLeaks’ downsides. [The Economist]

But any gains will come at a high cost. In a world of WikiLeaks, diplomacy would no longer be possible. The secrecy that WikiLeaks despises is vital to all organisations, including government–and especially in the realm of international relations. Those who pass information to American diplomats, out of self-interest, conviction or goodwill, will be less open now. Some of them, like the Iranian businessman fingered as a friend of America, could face reprisals.

Evan Hansen on why WikiLeaks is good for America. [Wired.com]

Instead of encouraging online service providers to blacklist sites and writing new espionage laws that would further criminalize the publication of government secrets, we should regard WikiLeaks as subject to the same first amendment rights that protect The New York Times. And as a society, we should embrace the site as an expression of the fundamental freedom that is at the core of our Bill of Rights, not react like Chinese corporations that are happy to censor information on behalf of their government to curry favor.

Dianne Feinstein on why WikiLeaks is bad for America. [Wall Street Journal]
 

This latest WikiLeaks release demonstrates Mr. Assange’s willingness to disseminate plans, comments, discussions and other communications that compromise our country. And let there be no doubt about the depth of the harm. Consider the sobering assessment, delivered in an email to employees of U.S. intelligence agencies late last month, by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “The actions taken by WikiLeaks are not only deplorable, irresponsible, and reprehensible–they could have major impacts on our national security. The disclosure of classified documents puts at risk our troops, law enforcement, diplomats, and especially the American people.”

Micah Sifry on the U.S. government’s actions in the wake of Cablegate. [TechPresident]

So, while I am not 100% sure I am for everything that Wikileaks has done is and is doing, I do know that I am anti-anti-Wikileaks. The Internet makes possible a freer and more democratic culture, but only if we fight for it. And that means standing up precisely when unpopular speakers test the boundaries of free speech, and would-be censors try to create thought-crimes and intimidate the rest of us into behaving like children or sheep.

Xeni Jardin on Internet groups’ response to government pressure on WikiLeaks. [BoingBoing]

Whatever you think of WikiLeaks, the crescendo of extra-legal pressure tactics threaten all our freedom.

Silencing Mastercard.com with pingfloods or malware isn’t going to do much to advance the cause of liberating those who would be silenced. But what exactly should be done? Normally I’d dismiss tweets describing this as “the world’s first great infowar” as hyperbole. But this time, everything really does feel unprecedented. (Added 12/8/2010, 1:51pm)

John Naughton on the larger political significance of Wikileaks. [Guardian]

The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies – with the exception of Twitter, so far – bending to their will. But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won’t work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.

Steve Aftergood on how WikiLeaks may lead to more secrecy, not less. [Secrecy News]

It is true that Wikileaks offers the most direct public access to the diplomatic cables and other records that it has published, most of which could not be obtained any time soon through normal channels.  But instead of subverting secrecy regimes, Wikileaks appears to be strengthening them, as new restrictions on information sharing are added and security measures are tightened.

Aaron Bady on how Assange thinks. [Zunguzungu.wordpress.com]

He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire.

Todd Gitlin on the difference between Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. [The New Republic]

Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers was a great democratic act that helped clarify for the American public how its leaders had misled it for years, to the immense detriment of the nation’s honor. By contrast, Wikileaks’s huge data dump, including the names of agents and recent diplomatic cables, is indiscriminate. Assange slashes and burns with impunity. He is a minister of chaos fighting for a world of total transparency. We have enough problems without that.

Mark Pesce on what comes after Assange’s WikiLeaks. [The Human Network]

In exactly the same way – note for note – the failures of Wikileaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered.  Assange must know this – a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster.  Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed.  We’re learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.

This failure comes with a high cost.  It’s likely that the Americans will eventually get their hands on Assange – a compliant Australian government has already made it clear that it will do nothing to thwart or even slow that request – and he’ll be charged with espionage, likely convicted, and sent to a US Federal Prison for many, many years.  Assange gets to be the scapegoat, the pinup boy for a new kind of anarchism.  But what he’s done can not be undone; this tear in the body politic will never truly heal.

Matthew Battles on a historical analog for WikiLeaks. [Gearfuse]

What’s happening now is reminiscent of the state of censorship in France in the decades leading up to the Revolution, the story of which is admirably told in historian Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-revolutionary France. In the eighteenth century, publishers required a royal privilege to legally publish books in the kingdom of France. Morally outrageous works and works critical of the government were of course denied these privileges; the publishing sphere’s response was to set up presses beyond the borders of France. The French appetite for the secret, the sexy, and the outlaw was met by pirate publishers operating beyond the reach of Government critiques could never sell as well as naughty books, of course–but in many cases the two were combined, in stories that told salacious tales of the nobility and their ministers which contained coded criticisms of official policies. Bawdy literature served as a form of encryption by which pre-revolutionary authors could ensure their disruptive messages could survive. (Added 12/8/2010, 12:21pm)

Jack Shafer on the martyrdom of Assange. [Slate]

But throw a nonappealing guy with a cause into jail, and suddenly he becomes a hero. Assange already has a core group of supporters. (I count myself one.) The arrest and jailing will recruit new supporters from their sitting places on the fence; they’ll now say, “I don’t agree with everything he’s done or how he has done it, but these sex charges seem a little trumped up!” Assange’s opponents–the honest ones, at least–will rise to say that they’d love to see the pasty-faced bastard dumped into the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., and become acquainted with the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, FBI traitor Robert Hanssen*, shoe bomber Richard Reid, abortion-clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. But, they’ll add, not on Swedish sex charges.

Jay Rosen on what exactly WikiLeaks is, as an institution. [Video: PressThink]

It is the world’s first *stateless* news organization. What I mean by that is that all previous press companies or outfits have been formed under the laws of a given state and they reflect the culture and society of that place. The BBC is an international organization but it was formed, created by the British people. The New York Times has, still, despite its shrunken size, a global reach, but it is the product of the United States and of New York and it exists under the laws, traditions, and press culture of a state. But Wikileaks belongs to the Internet. And not only does it not obey the laws of any one nation. Not only does it exceed or secede from the press culture in the countries of the world, but it doesn’t even start where they start. And so, it’s a novel formation, a type of organization we haven’t seen before. (Added 12/8/10, 12:50pm)

Emily Bell on how WikiLeaks has woken up journalism. [EmilyBellwether.wordpress.com]

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.

Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger on why he can’t support WikiLeaks. [LarrySanger.com]

Let me put this another way.  There are a lot of things that the U.S. State Department does that democracy-loving people across the political landscape can agree are positive, or at least supportable.  But some of those things have to be done in secret.  That is the nature of diplomacy, espionage, and foreign policy in the real world, which is a dangerous, complex world.  To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.  Come on, folks–can’t you see that?  It should be obvious, and it’s very disappointing that it isn’t more so to liberals.  Unless you count yourself as one of the aforementioned radical leftists, who want to see the U.S. lose, period, then you cannot support Wikileaks’ action.  It is completely unsupportable.

Cintra Wilson on Americans’ reaction to the leaked cables. [Hartford Advocate]

We have been so successfully brainwashed by the idea that we shouldn’t know what our own government/military is doing, that when unadorned truth is given to us, it looks so alien that we actually believe we shouldn’t see it. We’ve been kept in the dark for so long we’re like prisoners released from solitary confinement who are so pained and frightened when exposed to sunshine we want to go back in the hole.

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens on where WikiLeaks is coming from (among other things). [Network Cultures]

WikiLeaks is also an organization deeply shaped by 1980s hacker culture, combined with the political values of techno-libertarianism that emerged in the 1990s. The fact that WikiLeaks was founded – and to a large extent is still run – by hard-core geeks is essential to understanding its values and moves. Unfortunately, this comes together with a good dose of the less savoury aspects of hacker culture. Not that idealism, the desire to contribute to making the world a better place, could be denied to WikiLeaks: on the contrary. But this brand of idealism (or, if you prefer, anarchism) is paired with a preference for conspiracies, an elitist attitude and a cult of secrecy (never mind condescension).

To get a feel for the primary documents, try our CableGate Roulette minisite, which serves up random stories handpicked from Wikileaks archive. The red button loads a story. [The Atlantic]

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