wikileaks


Note: This is my personal view.

Andrew McAfee has come out quite strongly against  wikileaks and Assange’s principles and motives  in particular.  We disagree.

However, like Andrew, I’m a fan of computer and political history and I often use ancient quotes to make an argument. This post will be no different, and I may ramble a bit.

Andrew  quotes Babbage,

I’ll outsource my answer to the legendary Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage: “On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

I suggest that in the case of wikileaks, the issue is not that the wrong figures are put into the machine, but the opposite.  The right figures are in the machine.  For the last few decades we have been slowly swimming in the ever warmer pond of  a censored and spin filled press and controlled information. 

Wikileaks exposes a whole lot of truths. Many banal, even trivial, but many not.  Look at the collateral murder video.  Any democratically minded person reading of  US pressure on the Spanish government  to disrupt the investigation in the death of the journalist should surely see the merits in exposing this sort of  behaviour? what about the spying on the UN? The list goes on.

I’ll also quote Babbage in response.

Those from whose pocket the salary is drawn, and by whose appointment the officer was made, have always a right to discuss the merits of their officers, and their modes of exercising the duties they are paid to perform.

Governments work for the people, not the other way around.

As I said last week I see little wrong with Assange’s goals for wikileaks,  I saw little in his paper or his various  interviews that I fundamentally disagree with.  I saw nothing that called for a violent overthrow of governments.  Andrew’s  “name calling without name calling” is wide of the mark.

I don’t want to join in the name-calling that’s flourished in the wake of Cablegate. It is fair, though, to point out that labels exist for people who want to bring about non-democratic regime change to duly elected governments. And it seems fair and fitting to apply those labels to Assange, based on his own words.

I  found Assange’s position in TIME magazine and other interviews  echoing Kennedy’s  the very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society rather closely. He states in the TIME article:

We don’t have targets, other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior .

He goes on say.

one is to reform in such a way that they can be proud of their endeavors, and proud to display them to the public. Or the other is to lock down internally and to balkanize, and as a result, of course, cease to be as efficient as they were. To me, that is a very good outcome, because organizations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.

What is so treasonable in that statement?

When discussing companies in a Forbes interview Assange  said

Would you call yourself a free market proponent?

Absolutely. I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Having lived and worked in many countries, I can see the tremendous vibrancy in, say, the Malaysian telecom sector compared to U.S. sector. In the U.S. everything is vertically integrated and sewn up, so you don’t have a free market. In Malaysia, you have a broad spectrum of players, and you can see the benefits for all as a result.

….

It’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I’ve learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free.

WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical.

 

Of the American politicians, Ron Paul is closest to Kennedy’s fine words thus far. 

State secrecy is anathema to a free society. Why exactly should Americans be prevented from knowing what their government is doing in their name? In a free society we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, however, we are in big trouble. The truth is that our foreign spying, meddling and outright military intervention in the post-World War 2 era has made us less secure, not more, and we have lost countless lives and spent trillions of dollars for our trouble. Too often it’s the official government lies that have given us endless and illegal wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties.

Despite what is claimed, the information that has been so far released, though classified, has caused no known harm to any individual, but it has caused plenty of embarrassment to our government. Losing our grip on our empire is not welcomed by the neoconservatives in charge.

Thomas Jefferson had it right when he advised ‘Let the eyes of vigilance never be closed.’

Watch his speech in the house here.

Ellsberg, of the Pentagon Papers,  thinks so too.

The US government has used the power of transparency and openness in the past. Reagan, when talking about the cold war, said:

"Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders."   He also said,“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”  I’m not labelling America totalitarian, but let me now rely on Roosevelt to make my point.

Zunguzungu links Assange to Roosevelt’s arguments of 100 years ago.  I think he is right.

Roosevelt realized a hundred years ago that “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people,” and it was true, then too, that “To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.” Assange is trying to shit all over this unholy alliance in ways that the later and more radical Roosevelt would likely have commended.

 Henry Porter in the Guardian takes us back to 1771, and brings up the fascinating parallel of John Wilkes. It is relevant here.

Nothing is new. In 1771, that great lover of liberty, John Wilkes, and a number of printers challenged the law that prohibited the reporting of Parliamentary debates and speeches, kept secret because those in power argued that the information was too sensitive and would disrupt the life of the country if made public. Using the arcane laws of the City of London, Alderman Wilkes arranged for the interception of the Parliamentary messengers sent to arrest the printers who had published debates, and in doing so successfully blocked Parliament. By 1774, a contemporary was able to write: "The debates in both houses have been constantly printed in the London papers." From that moment, the freedom of the press was born.

It took a libertine to prove that information enriched the functioning of British society, a brave maverick who was constantly moving house – and sometimes country – to avoid arrest; whose epic sexual adventures had been used by the authorities as a means of entrapping and imprisoning him. The London mob came out in his favour and, supplemented by shopkeepers and members of the gentry on horseback, finally persuaded the establishment of the time to accept that publication was inevitable. And the kingdom did not fall.

Porter also notes

I limit myself to saying that we have been here before with John Wilkes; and the reason for this is that authorities the world over and through history react the same way when there is a challenge to a monopoly of information.

Porter’s whole article is worth reading. But here are some other gems.

I have lost count of the politicians and opinion formers of an authoritarian bent warning of the dreadful damage done by the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables, and in the very next breath dismissing the content as frivolous tittle-tattle. To seek simultaneous advantage from opposing arguments is not a new gambit, but to be wrong in both is quite an achievement.

Never mind the self-serving politicians who waffle on about the need for diplomatic confidentiality when they themselves order the bugging of diplomats and hacking of diplomatic communications. What is astonishing is the number of journalists out there who argue that it is better not to know these things, that the world is safer if the public is kept in ignorance. In their swooning infatuation with practically any power elite that comes to hand, some writers for the Murdoch press and Telegraph titles argue in essence for the Chinese or Russian models of deceit and obscurantism. They advocate the continued infantilising of the public.

 

Is Wikileaks perfect?, no, but it breaks the monopoly of information that governments and large corporations have over us all.  This is no bad thing.  We can read stuff as adults and make up our own minds.  Whether it is Assange’s wikilinks, or future  alternatives, we now have  mechanisms for inspecting the sausage factory of statecraft. 

The Swedish documentary is well worth watching, it gives a better insight into the goals and foibles of Assange and his colleagues than anything else I have seen or read.

Clay Shirky picks up on the publishers in Amsterdam in the 16th Century

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books*, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.

He is spot on.

Shirky makes a strong argument that any attempt to control wikileaks must be done within the law. To go beyond it would give ammunition to more overtly un-democratic countries. 

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.

In 4 years, there hasn’t been any evidence of wikileaks leading to the death of innocent parties.  Long may that continue.

This story is bigger than wikileaks though, and as one of the web’s great sages says.

So now the internet exists, does it mean no one can keep a secret any more? No. It’s just like in the good old days before the internet: if you want to keep something secret, try not telling anyone.

The internet is designed to share.

I came across this video via this blog. thanks.

Kennedy said: “The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society. Inherently and historically, we as a people are opposed to secret proceedings and concealment.”

 

It pretty much nails it.   I’d like the folks at Amazon and Paypal to watch it too.

Thomas Paine, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”

George Washington, “Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light.”
Julian Assange,  “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie.”

Antonio Gramsci, “To tell the truth is revolutionary.”  

Herbert Marcuse, “The need for alternative media has never been more acute."

Rosa Luxemburg, “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

Julian Assange,  “A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end.”

Ronald Reagan, “Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.”

Long ago, I studied political philosophy, and this wikileaks thing has stirred some parts of my brain that have not stirred over a decades.  Incoherence may follow.

I’m posting this on my personal blog, rather than the work one. These are my personal views, and should not be construed as anything other than that. Wikileaks has significant implications for enterprise software, but I’ll largely leave that to my colleagues for now.  

My view

Wikileaks is one of the best things that has happened to state and corporate governance,  since, gosh, Juvenal posed the Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? question.  Wikileaks challenges Plato’s Nobile Lie, big time. I reckon Karl Popper would have applauded wikileaks.  Hannah Arendt too, but I’m on thinner ice there.

Julian Assange and his colleagues have firmly established the concept of a safe place for whistleblowers to dump information.  They deserve  lauding, not opprobrium. Some Americans think wikileaks is picking on the US, but if you look at the previous leaks, there were many that were dealing with other countries and issues.   Look at the cases of toxic dumping in Africa, Swiss Bank tax evasion, Oil pollution in South America.    Wikilinks didn’t hack the system, or steal a password. Someone, probably Manning, gave them the information.

Assange’s paper here is well worth reading, it would be good if he wrote more, as he writes well.  See also  Zunguzungu’s post, where I found the link.

Check out Ginandtacos too.

Nuclear codes are a matter of national security. This crap isn’t. The "secrets" betrayed by this diplomatic cable dump range from the gossipy ("Prime Minister so-and-so has too much plastic surgery and a drinking problem!") to the "Are you kidding? Everyone already knows that!" variety. The Russian mafia is intertwined with the government? My word! That is simply shocking. The effect of the most recent information dump is not, as Obama and Hillary have so idiotically warned, that "lives will be lost." This isn’t blowing the cover of any double agents in the Kremlin. This is just making the government look stupid. If you think "We don’t want to be embarrassed" is a sufficient reason for the government to withhold information about its activities from the public, you have a very curious understanding of how this country is supposed to work.

And so in an era in which people get their real news from a comedian and their comedy from the real news, a non-state actor like Wikileaks represents our best hope for a more democratic state.

 

A more diplomatic view

I rather liked this piece on the Harvard blog, from a former diplomat.

Governments are no doubt rushing to secure their data and hold it more tightly than ever, but the horse has bolted. If a government as professional, technically sophisticated, and well-protected as the U.S. can suffer a breach of this magnitude, no government is safe. Politicians can roar their demands for the prosecution of Julian Assange or — absurdly — that Wikileaks be designated as a terrorist organization, but the rage is in truth a tacit admission that government’s monopoly on its own information is now a thing of the past.

The call by some of the American right to treat wikileaks as a terrorist organization smacks of paranoia.  Palin’s call to treat Assange like the Taliban is beyond despicable. Rule of law, please. 

My position mirrors that of the ACLU

We’re deeply skeptical that prosecuting WikiLeaks would be constitutional, or a good idea. The courts have made clear that the First Amendment protects independent third parties who publish classified information. Prosecuting WikiLeaks would be no different from prosecuting the media outlets that also published classified documents. If newspapers could be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, we might never have found out about the CIA’s secret prisons or the government spying on innocent Americans. Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome.

The broader lesson of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is that President Obama should recommit to the ideals of transparency he invoked at the beginning of his presidency. The American public should not have to depend on leaks to the news media and on whistleblowers to know what the government is up to.

This morning’s report that Amazon has ditched hosting wikileaks raises questions about censorship and coercion. This is definitely not cloud computing’s finest hour. It reeks of hypocrisy.  We expect Google and Yahoo to stand up to China, but Amazon seems to fold at the first mumble from a senator.  Which T&C did Wikileaks not follow?   I will not be shopping at Amazon this Christmas.

Think for a moment of the alternative scenario, the disgruntled operative handing it over to a foreign power, as per  Gordievsky, Blunt or Ames.  Instead, it is exposed to us all, we can make up our own minds.  Rather than lashing out at wikileaks  consider where the data would have gone in its absence. 

Shout out to the Guardian, Spiegel and the NYT.

Many have predicted the end of journalism.  This week the Guardian in particular has done much to dispel that in my mind. Its coverage of the wikileaks story has been thorough, careful, and brave.   Also the NYT nailed it here.

News organizations are in the business of publishing news. They can exercise their judgment with regard to whether, in exceptional circumstances — usually those regarding potential loss of life — news might be redacted, delayed or, on extremely rare occasions, permanently withheld. But the likely embarrassment to individuals, or inconvenience to U.S. diplomats, does not even begin to approach this bar.

When 250,000 documents can be placed on a zip drive smaller than a popsicle stick, and thousands of citizen journalists are working to make it available to the public, then the guarantee of secrecy for any powerful institution is only a comforting fiction.

 

Process and a bit about the software angle

There will be a lot of organizations rethinking security policies, systems and practices,  in the wake of this incident, and rightly so.  A junior level staffer should not have been able to download what he did without some sort of alarm bell ringing.

Software vendors are going to view this as the next Sarbanes-Oxley. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of marketing.  Do make sure you have a good supply of anti-hype pills.

I hope though, that it also makes organizations, whether government or otherwise, realise that they are being watched by broader society. Behave ethically, conspire less  and you have little to fear from wikileaks. 

Perhaps wikileaks  will continue to thrive with Assange at its head, but if not, an alternative leader or offering will emerge, as with Napster.  Targeting Assange will not make this go away.  I believe Assange should answer to the Swedish charges that he faces, but only through due process in a court of law. 

A Musical coda

I’ll end this with one of my favourite songs. Whispering Grass. From the Ink Spots. This was a hit in 1940.  listen here if you like.  Perhaps it should be the theme tune for wikileaks the movie. 

Why do you whisper, green grass
Why tell the tress what ain’t so
Whispering grass
The trees don’t have to know, no-no
Why tell them all your secrets
Who kissed there long ago

Whispering grass
The trees don’t need to know
Don’t you tell it to the breeze
For she will tell the birds and bees
And everyone will know
Because you told the blabbering trees
Yes, you told them once before
It’s no secret anymore-ore
Why tell them all the old things
They’re buried under the snow

Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees
‘Cause the trees don’t need to know-ow

For the Brits reading this there is the Ain’t half Mum cover too.

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