WikiLeaks, Transparency, and Privacy

The news has been dominated this week by “cablegate”. In short, 250,000 classified reports from US diplomats to the US State Department were leaked to a group called WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks is publicizing the entire set. Although the policy revelations contained in the reports released so far have merely helped to confirm long-assumed truths of international diplomacy, the extremely candid assessments of foreign officials given by diplomats are quite embarrassing to all concerned. Many politicians and government officials in the US consider the release espionage (or even terrorism) and are demanding legal action.

WikiLeaks’ Motivations

The motivations of Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief and spokesperson of WikiLeaks, are described in a pair of essays he published in 2006. Assange begins with the premise that open, transparent government is good and that any form of secrecy is bad. The point of releasing an organization’s secret internal communications, however, is not that the release itself increases the organization’s openness—quite the opposite. Assange argues that releasing any secret information that becomes available forces the organization to become more closed, taking even more care than before to protect its secrets. This extra care reduces the efficiency of the organization, weakening it and making it more vulnerable to its “opponents”. The assumption seems to be that these opponents will be more open, and thus “better”.

If these essays are accurate portrayals of Assange’s (and WikiLeaks’) motivations, then the direct goal motivating the release of US government secrets is not democratic reform of the US government. The goal is instead the weakening of the US government’s ability to do its job such that all opponents of the current regime—other nation-states, advocates of secession and internal revolution, and presumably also mundane electoral processes—are more likely to topple it. In this model, it doesn’t matter whether the contents of the diplomatic messages are inflammatory or not; it is sufficient merely to induce fear within the US government that future (possibly much more inflammatory) information will be disclosed.

I consider it quite likely that Assange is simply wrong about the effects of such leaks. The key is to recognize that the only “opponent” of the current regime with any realistic chance of reforming/displacing it is internal democratic reform in favor of transparency, and I argue that these leaks have hugely weakened such a movement. The information released has repeatedly brought to public attention the benefits of occasional secrets. It is obvious, for example, that frank and detailed profiles of foreign leaders are useful, but equally obvious that these will frequently be unflattering and thus best kept private. The cables also reveal that Yemen was willing to cooperate with the US in attacking terrorist cells in its territory, but was unable to conduct such attacks itself and felt that allowing US attacks would make the Yemeni government look weak; they agreed to allow US attacks on the condition that the Yemeni government can claim responsibility—a compromise that few Americans, at least, would fault, but one dependent on the ability to keep secrets. Further, the cables demonstrate consistent best-faith efforts to consider all sides of nuanced cultural, political, and moral issues in ways that are simply not possible in public partisan political discourse. I expect the vast majority of Americans following the story in much detail would become less, not more, supportive of a fully-transparent US government.

But perhaps more important is the number of Americans who really do follow such stories in any detail. It is disingenuous to claim that WikiLeaks is merely “releasing” information—they are actively driving publicity and press coverage of the information in a carefully-crafted media strategy. Despite the fact that the documents being released were classified, and despite the “government secrets!” hype that’s been drummed up, the documents released so far contain few if any genuine revelations, only embarrassing paper trails for information that’s always been available to journalists willing to cite “unnamed sources”; most of the interest in cablegate is actually interest in WikiLeaks itself, not the content of diplomatic cables. Assange’s philosophy that even leaks with no direct impact increase the fear of future leaks may in fact be exactly backwards: voluminous leaks with no impact could result in a public less interested in the content of future leaks, and the government’s discomfort may be slightly eased by the expectation that each future release from WikiLeaks is likely to receive less attention.

Other justifications for leaking of government secrets

A common political justification for WikiLeaks’ actions is that democratic governments must be held to account and that transparency is necessary for this to happen. My reading of Assange’s essays is that he does not see this as WikiLeaks’ primary role—he does not see such leaks as a sufficiently powerful tool to provide full transparency—but it is frequently given as a defense of leaking government secrets in general.

Frankly, I’m still having trouble following the logic. Democratic governments are held to account by their democratic processes, which decide (among other things) what level of transparency to provide. More transparency potentially offers more accurate democratic decision-making, while less transparency could potentially offer increased governmental efficiency in some areas. The argument that democracy is unworkable without voter omniscience is one against democracy, not in favor of slightly more transparency. I strongly suspect that this argument is really just the currently-relevant line of defense in the “transparency is good for everyone but me” game: democratic governments are fair game, as are tyrannies since they could still be subject to democratic overthrow, and maybe big rich corporations that people can choose not to support (unless it’s a business I work for or do business with), and then maybe nonprofits (ditto), and then maybe powerful educational or medical organizations (except that I almost certainly have done business with some of them, and they hold a lot of my own personal data…), but releasing information owned by individuals is clearly off the table. I tend to think that no simple answer exists as to what level of transparency is appropriate for which organization, and post-hoc justifications are worse than useless.

Among the general public (or at least the technorati) an extremely popular reaction is that “information wants to be free”, that the technology for universal release of any and all information is already pervasive, and that there is little point in debating or judging cablegate, since such releases of information are inevitable anyway. I consider such an outlook to completely misunderstand the new landscape of information availability, which is not entirely black and white. This topic merits more space than I can devote here, but the most obvious refutation is that this really is a story about WikiLeaks. The full set of diplomatic cables could have been leaked via dozens of web sites and BitTorrent servers around the world; that’s not what happened. It is the journalistic structure of WikiLeaks that is giving this release of information its impact and it’s not at all clear that such a structure is inevitable.

Culpability of WikiLeaks and its associates

I’m fascinated by the knee-jerk defenses of WikiLeaks and its associates; apparently the media industry’s assault on fair use of copyrighted materials and puritanical censorship of media has made defense of redistribution purely instinctive. Worse, the concept of free speech is being distorted beyond all recognition: Amazon is being accused of violating WikiLeaks’ rights by refusing to host its web site.

On the latter point, Amazon is an independent company with the right to choose what it hosts, and they have made clear that WikiLeaks was removed for violating its terms of service (which require that customers have full rights to the content they serve). One could make a free-speech argument in the case where a monopoly (whether an individual company of a coalition of companies) is able to block all access—if ISPs chose not to carry the information, for example—but this is absolutely not the situation for web hosting services.

As John Gruber asks, if you do not think that WikiLeaks has the right to redistribute this information, then are the Guardian, the New York Times, and all other news outlets similarly culpable? The line here seems fairly straightforward to me: WikiLeaks is actively choosing to make secret information public, which is a blatant violation of US law. If the New York Times obtained classified documents, then I don’t believe they would necessarily have the right to publish them, either.

Once WikiLeaks has made the information irrevocably public, however, news outlets are free (or, in practice, obliged) to comment on this newly-public information. The New York Times is in no way a co-conspirator with WikiLeaks in the crime of making these secrets public; they merely have the same free-speech rights as anyone else to comment on public information. The Guardian is in a marginally dicier position than the New York Times because they did actually enter an agreement with WikiLeaks to obtain prior access to the documents, but it’s difficult to imagine there’s anything they could have done to prevent the public release, so they can’t be considered a conspirator in the crime, either.


WikiLeaks: conspired to leak classified documents, which is a violation of US law

Julian Assange: rather paranoid, sophomoric in his view of conspiratorial organization, and interested in hurting the US and other large organizations

US State Department: has been doing the awkward things we’ve always expected (keeping an eye on visiting diplomats, for example), but there’s no evidence for the very unsavory things that some of us wonder about (assassinating political enemies, etc.); lots of evidence that it’s doing the nuanced and thoughtful analysis we’ve always hoped occurred in spite of simplistic public political rhetoric about US international policy

Amazon, The New York Times, The Guardian: still just doing their jobs