In reading the arguments that say Wikileaks should not be doing what they are doing, I am sympathetic to the feelings that people have about this, but I find there is weakness in the arguments that I’ve seen so far.
Let’s take one of the first ones: “Julian Assange is a <insert negative description here>”. If this is your argument against what Wikileaks has done, let’s assume that he had resigned at some point and yet the leaks still continue. If you still don’t accept that it is acceptable, then whatever feelings or thoughts you have about Julian Assange are besides the point. If you now think it is acceptable, then it has nothing to do with the leaks themselves, and more than you don’t like Assange. I can see why people don’t like him, but to me, that is beside the point.
The next argument against Wikileaks is that it is treasonous. A related one is that the U.S government should legally stop Wikileaks from publishing the material. The problem with that is that as far as we know, Assange and the rest of the Wikileaks team are not Americans, therefore they cannot be tried for treason, not being citizens of the U.S. As well, Wikileaks (so far) is outside U.S. jurisdiction, making it difficult to stop them legally.
One blogger, Matt Yglesias talked about the Long Term Consequences of Leaked Diplomatic Cables, including the arguments that there will be a a “redoubling of efforts—more phone calls, more compartmentalization,
more expenditure of resources on tracking Julian Assange down—and life
will go on”. Some of this is very unlikely. For one thing, people who work in offices need to document things. This is unavoidable, regardless of where you work. And nowadays, documenting things means storing it in a computer that is accessible via a network. The notion that large diplomatic organizations like that of the United States will limit themselves to phone calls is absurd. Embassy personnel, like personnel everywhere, need to demonstrate that they are working and being effective, and the way to do that is to document it. Preferably in a computer that other people can get access to, so that they too can be effective in their job. This means less phone calls and less compartmentalization, which results in many links in a chain. All you need is one weak link in that chain to end up in a document dump to Wikileaks.
As for tracking Julian Assange down and I assume killing him or stopping him somehow: I will get to that in a minute.
This blog post from Talking Points Memo contains two of the better arguments against Wikileaks:
But what Wikileaks is doing is categorically different. Many readers have written in to say — without knowing quite how to put their finger on it — that the indiscriminate nature of the release, just everything they could get their hands on — seems more like an attack on the US government itself than an effort to inform American citizens about what their government is doing on their behalf. And even though I’m in the business of unearthing and sharing information, my gut says they’re right.
The two arguments are that Wikileaks is indiscriminate and that Wikileaks is attacking the U.S. government. First off, those argument contradict themselves. Wikileaks is indiscriminate: if there is agenda or a vendetta against a particular country or organization, I’d like to see evidence of that. If anything, the motivation of Wikileaks is to take material that is secretive or hidden and expose it as widely as possible, regardless of who it is against. Perhaps over time it will appear that Wikileaks has it out for the U.S. government. I would argue, though, that if Wikileaks received a dump of documents against the Iranian or North Korean government (or any government), that they would publish those as well. I don’t think they have it in particularly for the U.S. government. (Indeed, many of the documents in the recent dump embarrass alot of governments besides that of the United States.)
I would also argue that Wikileaks must aim to be indiscriminate. If anything, if they were to start publishing a portion of what they received, the argument against them would be: what gives you the right to decide what should be released and what should not. By being indiscriminate, they do not judge or decide on the relevance of the material they receive. Furthermore, if they did start to discriminate, it is very likely that someone else would set up infrastructure to publish this material instead. By increasing the chance of publication of the material (which is what they did in their arrangements with various publications like Der Spiegel, the New York Times, etc.) and by not editing the material, they increased their chance of getting the material in the first place.
Years ago Napster burst onto the scene. And while the recording industry has laboured considerably to stop downloading and sharing of music, I think it is safe to say they have been unsuccessful. Even if the recording industry has been successful in stopping some of the initial activity like the work done by Napster, they soon found out it was not about Napster. This was something much bigger. People have created IT systems to overcome the restrictions that prevented file sharing, and they have gone on to share music to a much greater degree. You can argue whether it is right or it is wrong, but you cannot dismiss what has occurred.
Likewise with Wikileaks. Getting back to the notion of tracking Julian Assange down and killing him or stopping him somehow. This result will be no different than stopping Shaun Fanning and Napster, despite the difference in severity. For the cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. If someone can argue convincing how the cat gets back in the bag, I’d like to hear it.
Instead, what is very likely to happen is that Assange and Wikileaks are going to turn and pivot and turn their spotlight on some organization that everyone loves to hate: bankers. And after that, they are going to snare someone else. I beleive they are going to continue to change the conversation as they go forward, if they can. And the arguments above will fall by the side.
Ultimately much of the discussion is focused on the wrong thing. However serious these individual matters are, ultimately it is not about the U.S. government or Wikileaks. It is about the increasing difficulty organizations are going to have protecting their secrets and limiting the access to information that they have. This should be a surprise for no one, but it seems to be. The challenges individuals have in separating the public from the private are the same ones that organizations are going to have. The challenges that media companies have with limiting access to digital representations of what was once scarce media are the same ones organizations are going to have.
This is the world we live in now.