How to Think About WikiLeaks

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This is a regularly updated post. It was first published 12/8/2010 at 11:51am. Its time-stamp indicates when it was last changed.

In the days since WikiLeaks began releasing a small percentage of its cache of 250,000 cables sent by State Department officials, many people have tried to think through the event's implications for politics, media, and national security.

Writers pulling at the knot of press freedom, liberty, nationalism, secrecy and security that sits at the center of the debate have produced dozens of fantastic pieces. We're collecting the very best here. This page will be updated often. New links will be floated near the top of this list.

Send suggestions to amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com.

For clarity's sake, I'm sorting this archive into four sections. On the main page, you'll find the links from the last day or so. Next, you'll find the main stash of links on WikiLeaks. Third, you'll find thinking about Julian Assange. The last section will contain links pertaining specifically to WikiLeaks and journalism.
Go straight there:


Kim Zetter on WikiLeaks' finances. [Wired]

WikiLeaks' expenditures have risen dramatically in the last five months, from a paltry $38,000 between October 2009 and July 2010 to more than $495,000 in the last five months, according to a foundation that manages most of the organization's donations. The jump in expenses appears to be due to salaries the organization recently began paying staff members. WikiLeaks has said in the past, before it began paying salaries, that its operating costs run only about $200,000 annually. (Added 12/13/2010, 5:07pm)

Paul Vixie comes out strongly against the "mob rule" of the DDoS. [RedBarn.org]

John Adams wrote that "the very definition of a republic is 'an empire of laws, and not of men.'" Perhaps in some parts of the world, public affairs and even private affairs are ruled by men. But in the industrialized modern western world that has built most of the Internet infrastructure as we know it today, human affairs are ruled by law. Somehow we're willing to forget this in the heat of our political passions. The Internet has always had a distinct cultural "wild west" feel to it, and many of the world's laws aren't easily applicable here. But, we all remain citizens of our respective nations, and we live mostly in nations ruled by law. The Internet must reflect this also. Denial of service is not merely a peaceful protest meant to garner attention for a cause. Denial of service is forcible and it is injurious. It is not like any form of civil disobedience, but rather it is criminal behaviour more like looting.(Added 12/13/2010, 12:07pm)


A new Twitter feed provides legal news, analysis, and opinion on the issue in the WikiLeaks case. [@WLLegal]

A Beijing Daily op-ed argues maybe Julian Assange should win the Nobel Peace Prize. [China Media Project]:

And this brings us back to the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the decision by the Nobel Committee and the remarks of a number of other Westerners [concerning Liu Xiaobo], considering the acts of free speech in which this Assange has personally participated, opposing all on his own the "government violence" of several Western nations, could he not be regarded as a "fighter for freedom of expression"? Why don't the noble members of the Nobel Committee claim that the Peace Prize is given "in the defense of freedom of expression," and then give it to this Assange who has been persecuted, chained and jailed by the West? (Added 12/13/2010, 11:57am)

Deanna Zandt touches off a discussion about civil disobedience and denial-of-service attacks. [DeannaZandt.com]

There's a whole 'nother discussion here about power, privilege, risk and comfort when it comes to digital activism. What the short version of my feelings amounts to is that as long as we are as comfortable as we are, we won't risk anything. We have too much to lose. Thus, the question comes back to: how do I digitally throw myself in front of a tank? (Added 12/13/2010, 11:50am)

David Carr on how it's WikiLeaks that's been changed by journalism, not the other way around. [New York Times]

Notice that with each successive release, WikiLeaks has become more strategic and has been rewarded with deeper, more extensive coverage of its revelations. It's a long walk from WikiLeaks's origins as a user-edited site held in common to something more akin to a traditional model of publishing, but seems to be in keeping with its manifesto to deliver documents with "maximum possible impact." Julian Assange, WikiLeaks's founder and guiding spirit, apparently began to understand that scarcity, not ubiquity, drives coverage of events.(Added 12/13/2010, 10:30am)

Fareed Zakaria on whether WikiLeaks is actually bad for U.S. diplomacy. [TIME]

I don't deny for a moment that many of the "wikicables" are intensely embarrassing, but the sum total of the output I have read is actually quite reassuring about the way Washington -- or at least the State Department -- works. First, there is little deception. These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon papers. Which they are not. The Pentagon papers revealed that the U.S. engaged in a systematic campaign to deceive the world and the American people and that its private actions were often the opposite of its stated public policy. The WikiLeaks documents, by contrast, show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly. Whether on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or North Korea, the cables confirm what we know to be U.S. foreign policy. And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests. Ambassadors are not caught pushing other countries in order to make deals secretly to strengthen the U.S., but rather to solve festering problems. (Added 12/13/2010, 10:18am)

Thomas Darnstadt provides a German perspective on the state's privacy rights. [Der Spiegel]:

There is no good or bad public sphere, just as there is no such thing as a bit of a public sphere. According to the German Constitutional Court, it is only the full- fledged ability of all citizens to have access to all information, at least in principle, which makes the formation of public opinion possible. And it is the unobstructed formation of public opinion that makes it possible to view the outcome of elections as being representative of the will of the people. Is the state permitted to keep secrets from its citizens? Are citizens permitted to disclose such secrets? The answer to both questions is very simple: Yes. (Added 12/13/2010, 10:30am)

C. Fred Alford on how WikiLeaks has changed whistle-blowing. [New York Times]

The WikiLeaks data dump challenges a long held belief by many of us who study whistle-blowing -- that it is important that the whistle-blower have a name and face so that the disclosures are not considered just anonymous griping, or possibly unethical activity. The public needs to see the human face of someone who stands up and does the right thing when none of his or her colleagues dare. WikiLeaks' release of the secret cables seems to have changed all that. There is something about the power of so much raw data that seems to take on a life of its own. One can only imagine that there will be other whistle-blowers using similar strategies. This will depend very little on the survival of WikiLeaks, but rather, the ability of the Web to make public vast amounts of data. For better and worse, this changes whistle-blowing as we've known it. (Added 12/10/2010, 12:42pm)

Zeynep Tufecki on the cables' disruption of the standard insider-outsider dynamics. [Technosociology]:

Many commentators have noted that the confidential U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks contain nothing that would surprise an "informed observer." I agree and have said so as much myself. However, I think this actually is the real scandal exposed by Wikileaks: there is a fairly large circle of "insiders," which include much of punditry and journalists, who have a fairly accurate picture of most issues, who nonetheless cooperate with, and in fact, make possible, the efforts of modern states to portray themselves as making decisions dictated by pure motives and high-minded principles rather than by power and interests. In my view, the potential impact of Wikileaks and similar efforts is not necessarily about leaking well-guarded secrets, which these were not; rather, it is about changing the audience for a particular discourse from insiders to outsiders. Rather than expose unknowns, I think it is more accurate to say that Wikileaks has collapsed the distinction between the "front" and "back stages" of the modern state, and exposed the gap between the day-to-day reality of modern statecraft and its civic front.(Added 12/10/2010, 11:20am)

Legendary hacker mag 2600 condemns Anonymous' denial-of-service attacks. [2600]

Denial of service attacks against PayPal, Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, and other corporations and entities have been underway for the last few days, as widely reported in the mainstream media. Each of these targets had previously taken some sort of action against the whistleblower website wikileaks.org and its affiliates. The media reports almost invariably refer to "hackers" as being behind these actions. While there is great sympathy in the hacker world for what Wikileaks is doing, this type of activity is no better than the strong-arm tactics we are fighting against. (Added 12/10/2010, 11:33am)

Bruce Schneier on WikiLeaks' role and new models for government secrecy. [Schneier.com]

This has little to do with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is just a website. The real story is that "least trusted person" who decided to violate his security clearance and make these cables public. In the 1970s, he would have mailed them to a newspaper. Today, he used WikiLeaks. Tomorrow, he will have his choice of a dozen similar websites. If WikiLeaks didn't exist, he could have made them available via BitTorrent... And just as the music and movie industries are going to have to change their business models for the Internet era, governments are going to have to change their secrecy models. I don't know what those new models will be, but they will be different. (Added 12/10/2010, 12:10am)


Jack Hunter on the conservative case for WikiLeaks. [The American Conservative]

Decentralizing government power, limiting it, and challenging it was the Founders' intent and these have always been core conservative principles. Conservatives should prefer an explosion of whistleblower groups like WikiLeaks to a federal government powerful enough to take them down. (Added 12/9/2010, 4:37pm)


The Economist on how the pro-WikiLeaks side in the info war organizes itself. [The Economist]

About ten people, called "OPs", are able to launch an attack. If any OP abuses his power--if he fails to heed what anons call "the hive mind" in IRC conversations-- the other OPs can lock him out of the chat. If any anon fails to be inspired by the target, she can remove her own computer from the volunteer botnet, reducing its effect. Anonymous is a 24-hour Athenian democracy, run by a quorum of whoever happens to be awake. It's hard even to define Anonymous as a "group", since not all members participate in all projects. The attempt to take down Mr Lieberman's site, for example, is part of an effort called "operation payback", a demonstration of support for Mr Assange. (Added 12/9/2010, 1:05 pm)

Evgeny Morozov on DDoS attacks as civil disobedience. [Foreign Policy]

That said, I don't think that their attacks are necessarily illegal or immoral. As long as they don't break into other people's computers, launching DDoS should not be treated as a crime by default; we have to think about the particular circumstances in which such attacks are launched and their targets. I like to think of DDoS as equivalents of sit-ins: both aim at briefly disrupting a service or an institution in order to make a point. As long as we don't criminalize all sit-ins, I don't think we should aim at criminalizing all DDoS. (Added 12/9/2010, 1:29pm)

Dave Winer on taking the war part of infowar seriously. [Scripting News]

I watch my friends root for the attackers and think this is the way wars always begin. The "fighting the good fight" spirit. Let's go over there and show them who we are. Let's make a symbolic statement. By the time the war is underway, we won't remember any of that. We will wonder how we could have been so naive to think that war was something wonderful or glorious. People don't necessarily think of wars being fought on the net and over the net, but new technology comes to war all the time, and one side often doesn't understand. (Added 12/9/2010, 2:17pm)

Louis Klarevas on why the Espionage Act needs to change in the Internet era. [The Atlantic]

The Espionage Act, which has been cited by members of Congress calling for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be prosecuted as a spy, could be loosely interpreted as making it illegal to post a link to WikiLeaks on your Facebook page. The World War I era law, intended primarily to punish government employees and contractors who pass classified information to foreign government agents, is wildly out of date. Written long before the Internet changed how information and media work, the Espionage Act is unsuited to our era and long overdue for reform. (Added 12/9/2010, 1:05 pm)

Hans Magnus Enzensberger on state secrets, from a 1964 essay on treason. [Critical Essays]

One can therefore draw two opposite conclusions...: either that everything is a state secret or that state secrets no longer exist. In a certain sense both sentences mean the same thing; the first changes into the second, but with the following result: the betrayal of such secrets is prosecuted ever more ruthlessly the more eagerly statesmen proclaim them. The absurdity of this situation is apparent; but the very delusionary character of the taboo prevents its dissolution. (Added 12/9/2010, 2:25pm)

Glenn Greenwald on a central misunderstanding of what WikiLeaks has done. [Salon]

But as of now, that they have been largely following the lead of newspapers in publishing these cables is called "reality" and "truth."  That WikiLeaks just indiscriminately dumped "thousands of secret cables" is the primary U.S. Government claim being made to distinguish it from media outlets and to depict them as criminally irresponsible.  Except, at least as of now, that claim is an absolute, demonstrable lie.  (Added 12/9/2010, 1:47pm)

Robert Cringely points out the audacity of what WikiLeaks has done. [InfoWorld]

But, I can't stop thinking about WikiLeaks. Why? Because this is the single most important story to hit the Internet ever. It dwarfs the Drudge Report's Monica Lewinsky scoop, the Twitter anti-Tehran uprising, and even the Pam Anderson sex video. Never before has a small band of whatever-you-want-to-call-thems taken on every major nation simultaneously, twisting them into knots. But thanks to the distributed nature of the Net, they have -- and I suspect they won't be the last. (Added 12/8/2010, 9:57pm)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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