Dealing with the arguments against Wikileaks (and why Wikileaks is like the Napster of Governments)

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.

13 responses to “Dealing with the arguments against Wikileaks (and why Wikileaks is like the Napster of Governments)

  1. As I tweeted before

    rather than complaining about #wikileaks why don’t you do things that won’t make you look bad when it does get leaked.

    I am glad that this has happened, because it just proves that security through obscurity just does not work.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Your comments remind me of something that I think people don’t want to acknowledge, which is that IT security is difficult. Not all of it is difficult. Some things are straightforward. But alot of things, like determining your authorization model, can be very difficult indeed. Also, certain things, like weak classification schemes, give people a false sense of comfort. Someone with real security expertise (i.e. not me :)) could likely find a large list of security fail on this. I expect to see that come out next.

      • Perhaps governments/banks didn’t do bad things in the first place WikiLeaks would not be as sensationalized as it is today. Then again, utopian life can be boring 😀

        The problem with classification is it is very subjective and still dependent on the most fallible component, the end user.

        I wonder if the source of the leak is one of the more obvious ones: pizza delivery to the server room. 😀

      • smartpeopleiknow

        Classification systems can be a problem, for sure. The simpler, the better. (Sure they can get too simple, but is rarely the first problem.)

  2. Lauren Bornstein

    For the first time, I am glad to see someone stated both sides of the debate without name-calling or turning it into an argument. Even though I’m against Wikileaks, I’m in admiration of you, sir.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Thanks, Lauren. I appreciate that.

      I think we are just beginning in the process of understanding what Wikileaks means to the world. It’s best in such circumstances to keep an open mind.

  3. “Julian Assange is a ”.
    I assume author meant – argument is: “What Wikileaks is doing is wrong because, Julian Assange is a ”. Where it fact the argument is: “Julian Assange is a because what Wikileaks is doing is wrong”, not the other way around. Whether Wikileaks is wrong or not is different question.
    I wanted to add here though, Assange’s behaviour shows that his motives are not what he actually claims. He claims he wants to make governments more open. Okay, I wouldn’t mind if all he did would be just dumping whatever being submitted on site. But what we actually see now, is that the whole story is more about Assange himself, not about what Wikileaks is revealing. Someone would argue: “Oh, yeah, that’s because American government prosecutes him”. Where in fact Assange himself does as much as he can to be on spotlight. Proof? For example, he claims, he got around 250,000 documents, yet so far we saw less 1,000. He publishes documents slowly. This is in fact very clever idea. Now imagine all documents were dumped on first day when Wikileaks was ready to publish them (providing all personal names are removed of course). What would happen next? No doubt that would have tremendous effect. But soon a late people will forget about it. At the end of the day, there’s nothing new in these documents. Knowing that, Assange releases documents slowly. I don’t see any explanation why would he do that, other then getting the most of the story for himself. Okay, maybe he doesn’t have enough manpower to review all documents himself. Then why not sending copies of all documents to respectable news-outlets. Why not? They definitely will be happy to review and analyse them. But in that case everybody will forget about Assange very soon and concentrate on those news-outlets, and that’s not what he wants.

    The next argument against Wikileaks is that it is treasonous.
    This is not serious. Americans never claimed they want to charge him for treachery. They want to charge him for espionage. Someone might mentioned treason, but that was in context that as being Australian one would support closest ally. But then again, it was never an official view.

    Well, wanted to comment on other points as well but afraid it will take longer then I thought. Either there’s no point to write much. Sentiments are much more important in 21 century.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      This is a good point, especially on Assange’s motives and behavior. I stated that he released the documents indiscriminately, but that is not true. As you stated, he released a small portion of them. Are the rest the same, better, or worse, I can’t say. But he really should just release them all.

      It is not clear how to assess Assange’s behavior and motives. I am in favour of great transparency and openness, so I support that side of Wikileaks. But Assange’s behavoir makes it harder for me to support him. I believe alot of other people have the same problem.

      Ultimately what should matter is what is in the documents themselves and what they reveal, not the people doing the revealing. That is just a side show.

  4. It’s astonishing how much media attention has been given to Assange personally, and the drama of his arrest, and all the other peripheral nonsense surrounding Wikileaks. The coverage of this issue has pretty much been at the level of People Magazine, and it has revealed the shallowness of the American political culture. We are getting amazing and very important revelations from Wikileaks each and every day, and yet the focus is mostly on Assange, rather than the substantive material that his organization is releasing.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Yes, it is, and an unimportan side show it is, too. It’s the substance that is important, not the personalities.

  5. Demelza Thompson

    I just want to thank you for writing this piece here. It was such a big help with my English oral presentation and I even quoted you.

    I’m guessing that you wanted intelligent and opinionated comments for this article, but I was just commenting to say that this is really fantastic and you look a bit like Angus Sampson.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      That’s excellent! Thanks for sharing that info. I am glad it was a big help.

      And thanks for comparing me to Angus Sampson: that’s a nice compliment!

  6. Hello, i am a student in australia in grade 12,and i am doing a 2000 word investigation essay on wikileaks. i have chosen the topic,

    Is it ethical for “Wikileaks” to release classified government documents to the general public?

    i was wondering if i can get some help from you, as i get more marks for having a primary source,i need your point of view and argument, and i will also reference you in the essay.

    Thank you very much! 🙂