Wikileaks and the coming conflict between closed and open

I’ve been thinking about wikileaks ever since the story broke. Most of the stories – like those written by good friends like Taylor Owen and Scott Gilmore are pieces very much worth reading but I think miss the point about wikileaks and/or assess it on their own terms and thus fail to understand what wikileaks is actually about and what it is trying to do. We need to be clear in our understanding, and thus the choices we are about to confront.

However, before you read anything I write there are smarter people out there – two in particular – who have said things that I’m not reading anywhere else. The first is Jay Rosen (key excerpt below) whose 15 minutes Pressthink late night video on the subject is brilliant and the second is by zunguzungu piece Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government” (key excerpt further below) is a cool and calculated dissection of wikileaks goals and its intentions. I’ve some thoughts below, but these two pieces are, in my mind, the most important things you can read on the subject and strongly inform my own piece (much, much further below). I know that this is all very long, and that many of you won’t have the patience, but I hope that what I’ve written and shared below is compelling enough to hold your attention, I certainly think it is important enough.

Jay Rosen:

While we have what purports to be a “watchdog press” we also have, laid out in front of us, the clear record of the watchdog press’s failure to do what is says it can do, which is to provide a check on power when it tries to conceal its deeds and its purpose. So I think it is a mistake to reckon with Wikileaks without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 40 years, but especially recently. And so, without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks. When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case, when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and 100,000s of people die and the stated rationale turns out to be false, the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole and the American press and the international system because all of them failed at one of the most important things that government by consent can do: which is reason giving. I think these kind of huge cataclysmic events within the legitimacy regime lie in the background of the Wikileaks case, because if wasn’t for those things Wikileaks wouldn’t have the supporters it has, the leakers wouldn’t collaborate the way that they do and the moral force behind exposing what this government is doing just wouldn’t be there.

This is one of the things that makes it hard for our journalists to grapple with Wikileaks. On the one hand they are getting amazing revelations. I mean the diplomatic cables tell stories of what it is like to be inside the government and inside international diplomacy that anyone who tries to understand government would want to know. And so it is easy to understand why the big news organizations like the New York Times and The Guardian are collaborating with Wikileaks. On the other hand they are very nervous about it because it doesn’t obey the laws of the state and it isn’t a creature of a given nation and it is inserting itself in-between the sources and the press. But I think the main reason why Wikileaks causes so much insecurity with our journalists is because they haven’t fully faced the fact that the watchdog press they treasure so much died under George W. Bush. It failed. And instead of rushing to analyze this failure and prevent it from happening ever again – instead of a truth and reconciliation commission-style effort that could look at “how did this happen” – mostly what our journalists did, with a few exceptions, is they moved on to the next story. The watchdog press died. And what we have is Wikileaks instead. Is that good or is that bad? I don’t know, because I’m still trying to understand what it is.


But, to summarize, he (Assange) begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes…

…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.

– zunguzungu

Almost all the media about wikileaks has, to date, focused on the revelations about what our government actually thinks versus what it states publicly. The bigger the gap between internal truth and external positions, the bigger the story.

This is, of course, interesting stuff. But less discussed and more interesting is our collective reaction to wikileaks. Wikileaks is drawing a line, exposing a fissure in the open community between those who believe in overturning current “system(s)” (government and international) and those who believe that the current system can function but simply needs greater transparency and reform.

This is why placing pieces like Taylor Owen and Scott Gilmore‘s against zunguzungu’s is so interesting. Ultimately both Owen and Gilmore believe in the core of the current system – Scott explicitly so, arguing how secrecy in the current system allows for human right injustices to be tackled. Implicit in this, of course, is the message that this is how they should be tackled. Consequently they both see wikileaks as a failure as they (correctly) argue that its radical transparency will lead to a more closed and ineffective governments. Assange would likely counter that Scott’s effort address systems and not cause and may even reinforce the international structures that help foster hunan rights abuses. Consequently Assange’s core value of transparency, which at a basic level Owen and Gilmore would normally identify with, becomes a problem.

This is interesting. Owen and Scott believe in reform, they want the world to be a better place and fight (hard) to make it so. I love them both for it. But they aren’t up for a complete assault on the world’s core operating rules and structures. In a way this ultimately groups them (and possibly me – this is not a critique of Scott and Taylor whose concerns I think are well founded) on the same side of a dividing line as people like Tom Flanagan (the former adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister who half-jokingly called for Assange to be assassinated) and Joe Liberman (who called on companies that host material related to wikileaks to sever their ties with them). I want to be clear, they do not believe Assange should be assassinated but they (and possibly myself) do seem to agree that his tactics are a direct threat to the functioning of system that I think they are arguing needs to be reformed but preserved – and so see wikileaks as counterproductive.

My point here is that I want to make explicit the choices wikileaks is forcing us to make. Status quo with incremental non-structural reform versus whole hog structural change. Owen and Gilmore can label wikileaks a failure but in accepting that analysis we have to recognize that they view it from a position that believes in incremental reform. This means you believe in some other vehicle. And here, I think we have some tough questions to ask ourselves. What indeed is that vehicle?

This is why I think Jay Rosen’s piece is so damn important. One of the key ingredients for change has been the existence of the “watchdog” press. But, as he puts it (repeated from above):

I think it is a mistake to reckon with Wikileaks without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 40 years, but especially recently. And so, without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks. When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case, when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and 100,000s of people die and the stated rationale turns out to be false, the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole and the American press and the international system because all of them failed at one of the most important things that government by consent can do: which is reason giving.

the logical conclusion of Rosen’s thesis is a direct challenge to those of us who are privileged enough to benefit from the current system. As ugly and imperfect as the current system may be Liberman, Flanagan, Owen and Gilmore and, to be explicit, myself, benefit from that system. We benefit from the status quo. Significantly. Dismantling the world we know carries with it significant risks, both for global stability, but also personally. So if we believe that Assange has the wrong strategy and tactics we need to make the case, both to ourselves, to his supporters, to those who leak to wiki leaks and to those on the short end of the stick in the international system about how it is the reform will work and how it is that secrecy and power will be managed for the public good.

In this regard the release of wikileak documents is not a terrorist event, but it is as much an attack on the international system as 9/11 was. It is a clear effort to destabilize and paralyze the international system. It also comes at a time when confidence in our institutions is sliding – indeed Rosen argues that this eroding confidence feeds wikileaks.

So what matters is how we react. To carry forward (the dangerous) 9/11 analogy, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. Then our response corrupted the very system we sought to defend, further eroded the confidence in institutions that needed support and enhanced our enemies – we attacked human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and prosecuted a war that killed 100,000s of innocent lives on the premise of manufactured evidence.

Consequently, our response to the current crises can’t be to close up governments and increase secrecy. This will strengthen the hands of those who run wikileaks and cause more public servants and citizens to fear the institutions wikileaks and look for alternatives… many of whoe will side with wikileaks and help imped the capacity of the most important institution in our society to respond to everyday challenges.

As a believer in open government and open data the only working option to us to do the opposite. To continue to open up these institutions as the only acceptable and viable path to making them more credible. This is not to say that ALL information should be made open. Any institution needs some private place to debate ideas and test unpopular theses. But at the moment our governments – more through design and evolution than conspiracy – enjoy far more privacy and secrecy than the need. Having a real and meaningful debate about how to change that is our best response. In my country, I don’t see that debate happening. In the United States, I see it moving forward, but now it has more urgency. Needless to say, I think all of this gives new weigh to my own testimony I’ll be making before the parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

I still hope the emerging conflict between open and closed can be won without having to resort to the types of tactics adopted by wikileaks. But for those of use who believe it, we had better start making the case persuasively. The responses of people like Flanagan and Liberman remind me of Bush after 9/11 “you are either with us, or with the terrorists.” Whether intentionally or unintentionally, an analogous response will create a world in which power and information are further removed from the public and will lead to the type of destabilizing change Assange wants.

I’m bound to write more on this – especially around wikileaks, open data and transparency that I think some authors unhelpfully conflate but this post is already long enough and I’m sure most people haven’t even reached a place where they’ll be reading this.

17 thoughts on “Wikileaks and the coming conflict between closed and open

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  2. Jonathan Brun

    Hi David,

    Interesting post tying all these things together, I am not sure I completely agree. In short, I think wikileaks has an important role to play in the transformation of governments. Open-Data, of which I am a big fan, can only go so far because the data we get is at the discretion of the powers that be. Wikileaks, like Greenpeace, is very important because it reminds powers what the alternative to Open-Data is, they are the extremists in the discussion.

    On another point, my understanding of the “To destroy the invisible government” article is that Assange actually wants governments to try and become more secretive, because it will restrict their ability to act on items that are not moral (i.e. which they cannot do openly), so he is probably happy with Lieberman’s response as it further reinforces his position for openness and restricts the government’s ability to quickly respond.

    My two cents. Trying to write a post myself.



  3. Mark Kuznicki

    Great post, glad to be able to read your thoughts on this. I’m one of those who has been reading as much analysis on the meaning of Wikileaks that I can, so I appreciate reading yours.

    I think Jay Rosen’s reading is particularly profound from the point of view of the failure of journalism to hold government to account. This week I read with interest Samara Canada’s second report from MP exit interviews which found that few MPs saw that their role included a responsibility to hold government accountable. If these two major institutions – media and Parliament – have failed to uphold this critical function of democracy, then of course new structures will emerge to fill the gap.

    I think of Wikileaks as fulfilling a role similar to that of a trader seeking an arbitrage opportunity. It only has power in those places where the gap between truth and public statements is so great as to make the transaction worth the great human costs in terms of risk to the whistleblowers and the leaders of the Wikileaks movement. While Wikileaks may be the “first stateless news organization”, the individuals involved are still very much subject to state power and take on the state at great personal risk. And yet, the dynamic this has unleashed, by its example if not by Wikileaks’ specific continued existence, seems impossible to reverse. We’re past that point.

    So here we are – the scary weightless space just beyond the collapse of bedrock institutions most people still believe to exist. We’re Wile E Coyote. The question appears to be – can we build new Network Society institutions while in free fall? How will we transition? Will it be peaceful transformation, or violent revolution? As for me, I’m becoming increasingly doubtful of the possibility of reform, but I’m hopeful of being proved wrong.

  4. David Wrate

    Appreciate the observation that the event is potentially more disruptive than the released material. However, the power of the material can’t be ignored in the face of its impact to world relations.What strikes me as positive is the potential for nations/diplomats/leaders to change their behaviour such that that wikileaks and its ilk become irrelevant.I look back at life lessons from my parents; if you are honest and upfront with people, they are more likely to reciprocate. That is, until other base human motivations; greed and power, chief among them, edge out integrity and decency and take control. And with them comes the need for wikileaks.

  5. Igniter

    Thanks for tackling this. I’m at the same place, seeing this as a systemic challenge being brought to our attention. I think further that it is part of a larger civilizational process. It is challenging the very heart of our philosophy of organization… the mechanistic material manipulation model that served us well in designing factories and machines but has proven less successful in organizations and institutions.

    This is well beyond a debate about whether the actions right or wrong. It’s a demonstration that in our new connected reality, secrecy and information security does not exist. The pace of technological evolution is too fast to credibly claim that any new form of technical security wouldn’t be circumvented in short order. And further, it shows it is about individuals making choices to share information. People, individuals, cannot be controlled the way we liked to believe. In other words, there is no rational justification that the current geopolitical, governmental approach to influence and control can effectively continue. It’s over. It’s just a matter of how long it takes to find a new approach that is compatible with the new reality of the connected world and how much trauma there is in the transition to that model.

    Like the lovely little arsenic microbes have challenged our basic assumptions of life, or new red dwarf star theory that’s challenging our orderly model of the universe, wikileaks has challenged our orderly model of governance and organization. Interestingly we are readily able to discuss and accept that our models of life and the universe are incomplete, but when it comes to wikileaks… whoa nelly. Well maybe, just maybe it’s because as a civilization there is nothing more important. It’s certainly what’s caught my attention.

  6. Kelly

    Great post. Thank you for your insight. Having worked in government and signed the privacy agreement, I was always uncomfortable with both secrecy and leaks. Often it seemed that the leaks could only have come from the executive level and were more politically motivated than released for the betterment of the services or the public. When things occurred that were pertinent to how services were being performed to the determent of the public they weren’t leaked. I guess my question is who has the right to determine what should be leaked? I am suspect of the motivation. That goes for the press as well. In making the case for open data with government, I’m hopeful that a solid rational, clearly outlining the restrictions and regulations will prevail.

    p.s. Tableau public is really taking it on the chin as well.

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  8. Taylor Owen

    Dave, as usual, nice post. While i feel we should be having this convo over a drunken dinner, alas, today it will have to be through cyberspace! A few thoughts in response, which I have also posted on my site,

    First, I 100% agree, as you know, that the institutions of the 20th century were built for a different social, economic and political model, and need to be reformed. One of these reforms will need to far more transparency. More open data is part of this greater transparency. So yes, you and I are both incrementalists.

    Let’s be clear about what Assange wants though. He wants to bring down the system – in it’s entirety. Just look at the zunguzungu piece: “Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity.” Ah yes, the true sign of a false prophet – if only we know everything, then we will reach purity. This is Maoist in it’s true sense. Cleans the world of politics, then politics will be pure. Demagogic absolutism at it’s core.

    Second, and related, Assange is supposedly sitting on a huge data dump of a US bank. While this is likely a database of emails amongst managers and executives, what would those that are heralding this new world of absolute transparency say if he releases the financial information of every client of this bank. If his goal is to bring down the corrupt western capitalist system, why would he not release data that would bring the world economy to a standstill? And if he does, what will the reaction be from those that view wikileaks as a relatively harmless, though inconvenient for the powers that be, truthsayer?

    Third, on Rosen’s video, far from brilliant, I actually think he gets his two core points wrong (maybe it’s the Dewars). Yes the role of press as watchdog has been degraded, but this is a bit of an old story. If anything though, wikileaks has increased the role of the press. Assange has 250,000 cables, and what does he do? Instead of releasing them all on say, a wiki, and letting the wisdom of the crowds sort it out, he gives 5 old media companies privileged secret access to the data for several weeks before the dump. As such, it is the NYT, the Guardian and Der Speigel which are the primary filters through which we see the cables. Far from their death-nail, wikileaks is the best thing to happen to the mainstream media in a decade.

    Related, the second thing Rosen gets wrong is the reason leakers go to wikileaks rather than the traditional Bernteinian press. He seems to imply that they trust wikileaks to do better things with the data. That the press, having lost its watchdog role, is no longer worthy of a leakers intel. But maybe one simply leaks to wikileaks because wikileaks has a better guarantee of anonymity and is way easier? Imagine you are a junior officer in the US military sitting on a data base you want to leak. You could try to contact someone at the Washington Post via smoke signal, meet them in parking garages late at night, and hope that their J-School ethics course had enough of an impact that when they are thrown in jail by the US government, they will not divulge you as a source. Or, you could go to the wikileaks site and click upload. Let’s not read to much into this choice. I feel in this case Rosen has fallen victim to looking solely through his worldview – in this case, that the view from nowhere press is bad at everything.

    Finally, all i wanted to highlight in my piece is that data exists on a continuum from those which could usefully be opened, to those that loose their value if opened and must remain secret. I personally would rather my elected government make this decision. Assange thinks everything should be open does should be open for us to see. I don’t. That being said, government will need to be pressured to do be more open, and part of this pressure should include calls for far more accountability. Only a more accountable government will have the credibility to convince a sceptical public that the secrecy decisions they make are the right ones.

    Where, for example, are the detainee transfer documents that nearly brought the present parliament down nearly a year ago? A process was supposedly designed to balance national security with transparent government, yet to date not a single document has been released. It is a singular failure of both the Harper government and the opposition parties that this process has been treated with such negligence. And a more engaged citizenry would have demanded and empowered their representatives to act more responsibly. Ironically, it is this sort of behavior makes leaks all the more likely, as both bureaucrats and citizens stop trusting the government with the powers of secrecy we give them.

    And this is where Dave’s work is so important. The question is not between absolute open and absolute closed. This is not, as much as some might like it to be, a revolution. It is not that romantic. As Dave regularly reminds us, it is a question of how we transition our government and institutions from the 20th to the 21st century. In this sense, it is, and must remain to be, incremental.

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  11. PeteMoss17

    Fantastic reading! As to the choice between incremental non-structural reform versus whole hog structural change, my hope is that this will lead to the latter. That doesn’t mean anarchy. That doesn’t mean violent revolution. Massive change in the system can be achieved through the democratic electoral process. But we don’t even have that in the U.S. Wholesale structural change must include one person, one vote. There must also be true campaign finance reform – no candidate can be beholden to anyone or any group, no outside money to influence a candidate’s ideas or positions. Also, and absolutely most important, we as human beings must evolve to the point that we elect people whose egos don’t allow them to believe they are so much more superior that they have the ability to lead all others. Better yet, we evolve to the point we govern ourselves. But back to the existing world. Jay Rosen asks whether this WikiLeaks phenomenon is a good thing or a bad thing. If WikiLeaks was indeed born of a failed watchdog press, that is a bad thing – not because we now have WikiLeaks, but because our mainstream press has seriously lost its way. If the work of WikiLeaks results in diplomats beginning to conduct business as decent people, communications become open and honest, jealousy and distrust is removed from the equation, territorial barriers are broken down, then all of this is a good thing. As Julian Assange told the Guardian, “History will win. The world will be elevated to a better place. Will we survive? That depends on you.”

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  13. Anonymous

    Wikileaks is the simply the result of a profound imbalance. For many it is simply a desperate measure because nothing else has worked. Correct this extreme imbalance and the very need for a “wikileaks” will decrease. So you are right in that we ought to do something to correct the imbalance but you are wrong in seeing it as a revolution. It is simply a small necessary step in the good direction (because we have lacked people with courage and ethics for far too long). A second reason why it is not a “revolution” but simply an evolution is something I thought you would have seen already: the public in general can see and process it all, contrary to what most powers tend/want to believe. In any case, the cost of delegating responsibility is and has always been extremely destructive for mankind, far more than the tedious exercise of dealing with reality and truth. Well, already said too much. Greetings David. Always a pleasure to read you struggle. Jacques

  14. Wikisteff

    Thanks for this article, David.

    In my own thinking on the topic, the probability of a wikileaks-type event would seem to scale with:
    1. the number of candidate leakers;
    2. the discrepency between an organization’s public line and its private behaviour; and
    3. the ease of gathering candidate information.

    That said, #1 and #3 can be subject to organizational interventions. #2 appears to be subject to supercriticality, which is the theory that explains the power law distribution of earthquakes and economic crises. As such, these mega-leaks can be viewed as extreme values on the leaks power law. Governments that try to hide bad behaviour can expect to see more leaks as a function of time, and occasional very much larger leaks as well. So can corporations.

    My understanding of Assange’s point on this leaking is this: he doesn’t seem to want to break everything. Indeed, dumping the 250,000 unexpurgated cables on the Web would have been MUCH simpler and much cheaper than the trickling, editing and publishing the leaks line by line. That says to me that his game is not wanton destruction. I suspect that when the bank mails get released, they also will be checked for personally identifying information and carefully edited to put together the story without hurting individuals involved.

    This should be contrasted with the unexpurgated and radical openness used by the CRU Hack, also known (dubiously) as “Climategate”. That group ignored wikileaks, and simply dumped the email spool on the web unfiltered, with zero editing or oversight. A rabid fan base of volunteers and media agents dived on the bolus, looking for the most questionable of lines – finding three interesting emails in the process. I will point out again that it is MUCH easier to just dump information unfiltered on the Web, as a moment’s consideration will reveal.

    Cheers from Ottawa!


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