December 6, 2010

Wikileaks: the Big Picture

There are a lot of issues implicated in Wikileaks' recent publications and the world's responses to them, and I'm not at all sure what the exact resolutions of those issues should be. But I think it's important to keep the big picture in view.

We are living in times of extraordinary incursions against the rightful liberties and powers of ordinary citizens.

A big part of the problem is that knowledge is power, and a balance of power requires a balance of knowledge. But the way things are now, corporations and the government know everything about us and we know almost nothing important about them.

There have been periods in the past when the mainstream media did a better job of fulfilling its proper function as the "watchdog of democracy." It hasn't been doing that for some while. Part of that problem is that, leaving the internet aside for the moment, the vast majority of media worldwide are directly or indirectly controlled by oligarchs (see Wikipedia and the sources cited there).

As for the internet, the oligarchs are already well on their way to controlling most of it; witness the latest proposed FCC regulations.

Wikileaks almost certainly has not broken any laws. The U.S. government and others have been struggling mightily to conjure something to charge someone with for some time now, without success; clearly, they're going to have to get a lot more, shall we say, creative.

W.r.t. the U.S. Embassy cables, WikiLeaks has posted online only a small portion of the material leaked to it, and most of what it's posted was published first by one of its newspaper partners (The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, et al.). Moreover, the material posted by WikiLeaks contains the redactions applied by those papers to protect innocent people and otherwise minimize harm. (See Salon and sources cited therein for details.)

Wikileaks is not a spy operation any more than The NYT is. Rather, it's a journalistic organization whose mission is to publish what other people want to leak to them, if the information is credible and significant (see here).

Basically, I believe that t.m.i. is better than too little. I have more faith in our ability as a species to collectively sort through the info and interpret it helpfully, than I have in the likelihood that any smaller group of individuals entrusted with the power to pick and choose what we should know, without meaningful oversight, will fail to abuse that power.

Do I think no one should be able to have secrets? No. I certainly don't want all my personal info to be known, let alone published.

But there's an important distinction to be made between information held by governments or public corporations vs. individuals' personal info. I am not entrusted with the welfare of large numbers of consumers or citizens; and if I were, again, to the extent any info in my possession related to matters that could affect them, I don't think I should be allowed unilaterally to decide what they get to know about it.

Perhaps, ideally, it would be better to only expose the "sausage-making" processes behind our leaders' decisions (diplomatic or otherwise) to the extent we've actually been misled about the facts justifying those decisions. E.g., maybe it doesn't matter so much who wanted what out of the Iraq war, as that we were lied to about the reasons for starting it.

But it's hard to expose those lies without also exposing the back-room realities of who wanted what, esp. when you're a relatively small, underfunded operation.

And one thing we should all thank Assange for is irrefutable proof that one person can still make a difference.

Finally, I can't resist noting that, w.r.t. timing, it appears to have been Wikileaks' promised release of information on a major bank, believed to be Bank of America, after the end of this year that triggered the recent, dramatic step-up in pressure on Assange.

Let me also just mention, (1) the UK Guardian has published some truly great pieces on the whole affair, w.r.t. both reporting and analysis, including this one and this one (I strongly encourage you to read both); (2) you can download an archive of Wikileaks' releases that's complete as least as of the date of this post here (it's only a few MB's; you'll need StuffIt or something to unzip it); and (3) as of this writing, you can still reach Wikileaks' site here. (You can also find previous c-Blog posts on Wikileaks here.)

UPDATE: "A Twitter posting by American poet and essayist John Perry Barlow[:] . . . . 'The first serious infowar is now engaged' . . . . 'The field of battle is Wikileaks. You are the troops . . . '" "Using the moniker 'I Am Wikileaks,' supporters . . . [have] created more than 570 mirror versions of the Wikileaks website and have called for a boycott of Paypal, Amazon and EveryDNS, three US-based websites that recently severed ties to Wikileaks. . . . More here.

FURTHER UPDATE: Hot off the "press," Assange's Op-Ed for The Australian here (also well worth the read).


  1. Can't resist adding . . . . When you see/hear some talking head calling Wikileaks "irresponsible," ask yourself who THAT person is responsible TO? Who can hire or fire that person -- you, or the powers that be?

  2. Also can't resist calling particular attention to the following 'graph from John Naughton's excellent Op-Ed for The UK Guardian at : "The attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on. These are firms like Google, Flickr, Facebook, Myspace and Amazon which host your blog or store your data on their servers somewhere on the internet, or which enable you to rent "virtual" computers – again located somewhere on the net. The terms and conditions under which they provide both "free" and paid-for services will always give them grounds for dropping your content if they deem it in their interests to do so."