A feature, not a bug: the role of WikiLeaks in a governance ecology

UPDATE, December 6th: Clay Shirky has added his authoritative voice to the debate. Like many American citizens, he is mainly concerned with making sense of the behavior of the U.S. government, by far the most committed to getting WikiLeaks out of the picture. His impression is unfavorable, because he sees it going after this goal with means other than a lawsuit (pressure on server space contractors, Paypal etc.). Also, he makes a distinction between short and long haul. I recommend you read the post for yourself, but all in all I think it’s fair to say that, while we wait for a new legal and societal equilibrium for a networked society to emerge, WikiLeaks is functional to a healthy democracy.

I met Julian Assange in 2009 in Barcelona. We were both speakers at Personal Democracy Forum Europe (where the video above was taken), where people interested in augmenting democracy (like him) or governance (like myself) meet to exchange news and views.

WikiLeaks is obviously not a government project. If it were not for this, it would rest well among the examples of Internet-enabled public policies in Wikicrazia because, like them, it is oriented towards some notion of public interest (transparency and accountability of public authorities); and, like them, it mobilizes collective intelligence to sift through a great many data that come from government sources and use them to tell convincing stories about what governments are up to, and why.

I claim that WikiLeaks is oriented towards the public interest because its activity is not directed against the states whose classified documents they are making available. On the contrary, Julian is convinced he is helping them: better informed citizens make for a more robust democracy. If more people think about our past choices, they make it more likely that we will make wiser ones in the future. And I claim it mobilizes collective intelligence because it does not attempt to sell any “truth”: rather, it is trying to supply raw data to journalists, the judiciary, committed citizens and historians. The “truth” is not in the individual document, but rather in the shared interpretation of the documental evidence that will emerge from public debate. WikiLeaks is in the business of putting classified documents in the public domain, and leaving the collective intelligence I refer to in the book to infer the bigger picture. If a single document puts human lives at stake, it is just not released: this is what happened for military documents about U.S. troops deployment in Afghanistan.

On these topics, Julian’s position is strikingly similar to those of leaders committed to transparency and accountability. If you put him in a room with President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, the three men would agree on almost everything. But not on a key point: WikiLeaks thinks even the most transparent governments abuse confidentiality, and it feels it is both its right and its duty to intervene to put out in the open documents that have no reason to be confidential. For what it’s worth, I agree with the first part of the argument: public authorities do tend to keep their doings away from public scrutiny almost as if by instinct. Most of the time this is useless (they have nothing to hide) or even harmful (by being secretive, they fail to build mutual trust with the citizenry). In Italy – admittedly not the most open of countries – when two consumers association asked to see the paper trail of the ill-fated portal Italia.it, which cost taxpayers 45 million euro and imploded a few weeks from launch they were met with refusal. Clearly there are no lives at stake here, no national security matters, so those documents should be made public. In a democracy, public debate is a source of wisdom and guidance to governments, and the more we feed it information, the better.

I am fairly sure many honest, devoted civil servants would agree, and I imagine it is well meaning insiders that pass information on to WikiLeaks! A little provocatively, you could argue that Julian and his crew are in a mutually supportive relationship with the states that claim to be damaged by what they do: “pro-transparency” civil servants feed WikiLeaks documents, and it in returns help them overcome the blockades built by their colleagues who would prefer a greater degree of confidentiality. An ecologist would speak of symbiosis: WikiLeaks is not like a virus attacking the host, but more like an useful bacterium that helps its metabolism. In computerspeak, it is a feature of democracy, not a bug.

Here’s a prediction: Cablegate will have little, if any, large scale impact on diplomacy, just as so far releasing public data in open formats has had no backlash effect – even when they were potentially controversial, like budgetary data. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of posting your picture taken at a drunken party on Facebook, forgetting your boss might see that too: embarassing, but not that big a deal. According to the Huffington Post two to three million gov employees were cleared to see these documents: hardly top secret. And no revelation has come forth so far. Diplomacy is by definition a cold-blooded, Machiavellian relationship: what individual diplomats think of a foreign head of state is of little consequence.

With time, diplomats and governments themselves will get used to managing their privacy in a connected world, like we all do, and most of what they do will be confortably out in the open (I agree with Micah Sifry on this one) At that point there will be no need for a Wikileaks, and Julian will move on.

Finally, charging him with rape is a very bad idea even from the point of view of his opponents. It is likely to backfire, reducing the space for dialogue between public authorities and the smartest, most idealistic part of the civil society.

8 thoughts on “A feature, not a bug: the role of WikiLeaks in a governance ecology

  1. osimod

    Alberto, I quite disagree. I do think that governments should have the right to mantain secrecy over some affairs, diplomacy first of all. I do not believe in total transparency.
    Furthermore I do not like this action by wikileaks, because I am not clear on the criteria with which their data are released. It’s clear that it is NOT transparent, and that Julian had discussion with the US government before releasing. Why some document and not others? Leaking the right documents to the press has long been a manipulation technique.
    Having said this, the response by the government is a scandal. It’s clear to everybody that he is not prosecuted for sexual harassment, but for publishing the cables. The Interpol and worldwide governments are clearly manipulating the law in order to arrest him. the reaction of the italian foreign minister testifies this. This is making the lack of trust in government even worse. Are we ready to accept that government prosecute someone not for the real accusation but using other minor accusation as a problem?
    Does anyone believe that he’s really arrested for sexual harassment? If not, how can we tolerate this blatant illegal behavior by worldwide governments?

    1. Alberto Post author

      Fair play to the Italian government. This is a civilized response: we have a law, let’s put the case through to the judiciary.

  2. Alberto Post author

    David, thanks for your comment. Most people I have spoken to agree on the second part of it, the one about governmental response to the leak.

    I am more interested in the first part. Let me clarify: I don’t deny the right of governments to confidentiality, just like I never denied the right of record companies to intellectual property thay had acquired. I am saying that, right or wrong, confidentiality on any given item is not sustainable unless there is a wide agreement that it is a good thing. Low-level secrecy protecting stuff that does not really endanger anyone but is widely deemed to be of interest to the public (source: Huffington Post and others) + 2.5 million people having access to it (source: BBC) + a server in Iceland, protected by strong freedom of press laws = leaks. How are you going to enforce it? It is already a felony for civil servants to leak – but they do it anyway, and they generally do not get caught. You can convict high school kids, like the music industry did – see where that got it.

    Like in the case of music file, just about the only way to go is to build a trust relationship with data users. They are going to outsmart you anyway.

    1. osimod

      I like the comparison, but as you know I think that the music industry was most of all let down by governments who rather turned a blind eye on piracy to favour the telecoms.

      1. Alberto Post author

        Yes, that’s one story. Another one is: if people believe a law to be wrong they are going to break it, and not much you can do about it (yes, you can sue high school kids, but you’ll only be able to sue one in a thousand, and you’ll end up looking like an evil idiot anyway).


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