How to Think About WikiLeaks

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Johan Lagerkvist on the impact of the forgotten man in all this, Bradley Manning. [Yale Global]

The latest WikiLeaks episode reminds us that the weakest link in officialdom is the individual. This time his name was Bradley Manning. In the age of social media it takes only one disloyal or conscience-stricken employee, one skilled "hacktivist," to disseminate encrypted oceans of information, logistically impossible in pre-internet days. The diplomacy of nations has always been a highly vulnerable endeavor but, since the explosion of social and commercial networks online, there are now innumerable possibilities for renegade organizations and individuals to expose, destroy and retreat. As with the "war on terror," contestation is about powerful and hard-to-target asymmetrical relations, which is why elite politics and high-level diplomacy are under more pressure than ever. (Added 12/8/2010, 2:19pm)

Ethan Zuckerman on the Internet as a public and commercial space. [Columbia Journalism Review]

What's really hard about this is that we perceive the web to be a public space, a place where you should be able to go and set up your soapbox and say whatever you want to say to the world. The truth is, the web is almost entirely privately held. So what happens here is that we have a normative understanding that we should treat this like public space--that you should have rights to speak, that no one should constrain your rights--but then you discover that, basically, you're holding a political rally in a shopping mall. This is commercial speech, controlled by commercial rules.

Clay Shirky on what WikiLeaks means for press freedom. [cshirky.com]

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us "You went after Wikileaks' domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don't like the site. If that's the way governments get to behave, we can live with that."

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency -- Wikileaks shouldn't be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it's OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn't prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

Micah Sifry on the U.S. government's actions in the wake of Cablegate. [TechPresident]

So, while I am not 100% sure I am for everything that Wikileaks has done is and is doing, I do know that I am anti-anti-Wikileaks. The Internet makes possible a freer and more democratic culture, but only if we fight for it. And that means standing up precisely when unpopular speakers test the boundaries of free speech, and would-be censors try to create thought-crimes and intimidate the rest of us into behaving like children or sheep.

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens on where WikiLeaks is coming from (among other things). [Network Cultures]

WikiLeaks is also an organization deeply shaped by 1980s hacker culture, combined with the political values of techno-libertarianism that emerged in the 1990s. The fact that WikiLeaks was founded - and to a large extent is still run - by hard-core geeks is essential to understanding its values and moves. Unfortunately, this comes together with a good dose of the less savoury aspects of hacker culture. Not that idealism, the desire to contribute to making the world a better place, could be denied to WikiLeaks: on the contrary. But this brand of idealism (or, if you prefer, anarchism) is paired with a preference for conspiracies, an elitist attitude and a cult of secrecy (never mind condescension).

Jonathan Zittrain and Molly Sauter on the three phases of WikiLeaks from a dynamite FAQ on the organization. [Technology Review]

Wikileaks has moved through three phases since its founding in 2006. In its first phase, during which it released several substantial troves of documents related to Kenya in 2008, Wikileaks operated very much with a standard wiki model: the public readership could actively post and edit materials, and it had a say in the types of materials that were accepted and how such materials were vetted. The documents released in that first phase were more or less a straight dump to the Web: very little organized redacting occurred on the part of Wikileaks.

Wikileaks's second phase was exemplified with the release of the "Collateral Murder" video in April 2010. The video was a highly curated, produced and packaged political statement. It was meant to illustrate a political point of view, not merely to inform.

The third phase is the one we currently see with the release of the diplomatic cables: Wikileaks working in close conjunction with a select group of news organizations to analyze, redact and release the cables in a curated manner, rather than dumping them on the Internet or using them to illustrate a singular political point of view. (Added 12/9/2010, 4:37pm)


Nikil Saval on the relationship between information and politics. [n+1]

The secrets remain the problem--they convert even honest public servants, newly enthralled with what they're able to occlude, into sycophants and liars. But having secrets out in the open doesn't automatically give us politics... Let's remember that information is not yet knowledge--it's only the object of knowledge. Information sits mute, inert, intransigent, until we begin to imagine better and to ask the right questions. The WikiLeaks documents offer us another opportunity to consider what kind of government, what kind of politics, we have, and to imagine what kind, if any, we would want instead. (Added 12/9/2010, 4:48 pm)

The Economist on WikiLeaks' downsides. [The Economist]

But any gains will come at a high cost. In a world of WikiLeaks, diplomacy would no longer be possible. The secrecy that WikiLeaks despises is vital to all organisations, including government--and especially in the realm of international relations. Those who pass information to American diplomats, out of self-interest, conviction or goodwill, will be less open now. Some of them, like the Iranian businessman fingered as a friend of America, could face reprisals.

Taiwanese cartoon news animators provide a hilarious, but good video explainer. [NMA.tv


(Added 12/9/2010, 1:22pm)

Evan Hansen on why WikiLeaks is good for America. [Wired.com]

Instead of encouraging online service providers to blacklist sites and writing new espionage laws that would further criminalize the publication of government secrets, we should regard WikiLeaks as subject to the same first amendment rights that protect The New York Times. And as a society, we should embrace the site as an expression of the fundamental freedom that is at the core of our Bill of Rights, not react like Chinese corporations that are happy to censor information on behalf of their government to curry favor.

Dianne Feinstein on why WikiLeaks is bad for America. [Wall Street Journal]
 

This latest WikiLeaks release demonstrates Mr. Assange's willingness to disseminate plans, comments, discussions and other communications that compromise our country. And let there be no doubt about the depth of the harm. Consider the sobering assessment, delivered in an email to employees of U.S. intelligence agencies late last month, by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: "The actions taken by WikiLeaks are not only deplorable, irresponsible, and reprehensible--they could have major impacts on our national security. The disclosure of classified documents puts at risk our troops, law enforcement, diplomats, and especially the American people."

Roberto Arguedas puts WikiLeaks and net neutrality in perspective. [Gizmodo]


The potential for Comcast or Verizon abusing their place in the food chain pales in comparison to an overt example of governments colluding to silence what they can't defeat in court with intimidation and technological warfare... As Senator Joseph Lieberman makes clear (via Cory), it's easy for unscrupulous advocates of censorship to view this as an opportunity, a watershed that brings together their traditional loathing of old media with contemporary technology. (Added 12/8/2010, 9:57pm)

Xeni Jardin on Internet groups' response to government pressure on WikiLeaks. [BoingBoing]

Whatever you think of WikiLeaks, the crescendo of extra-legal pressure tactics threaten all our freedom.

Silencing Mastercard.com with pingfloods or malware isn't going to do much to advance the cause of liberating those who would be silenced. But what exactly should be done? Normally I'd dismiss tweets describing this as "the world's first great infowar" as hyperbole. But this time, everything really does feel unprecedented. (Added 12/8/2010, 1:51pm)

John Naughton on the larger political significance of Wikileaks. [Guardian]

The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies - with the exception of Twitter, so far - bending to their will. But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables - and probably of much else besides - are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.

Steve Aftergood on how WikiLeaks may lead to more secrecy, not less. [Secrecy News]

It is true that Wikileaks offers the most direct public access to the diplomatic cables and other records that it has published, most of which could not be obtained any time soon through normal channels.  But instead of subverting secrecy regimes, Wikileaks appears to be strengthening them, as new restrictions on information sharing are added and security measures are tightened.

Matthew Battles on a historical analog for WikiLeaks. [Gearfuse]

What's happening now is reminiscent of the state of censorship in France in the decades leading up to the Revolution, the story of which is admirably told in historian Robert Darnton's The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-revolutionary France. In the eighteenth century, publishers required a royal privilege to legally publish books in the kingdom of France. Morally outrageous works and works critical of the government were of course denied these privileges; the publishing sphere's response was to set up presses beyond the borders of France. The French appetite for the secret, the sexy, and the outlaw was met by pirate publishers operating beyond the reach of Government critiques could never sell as well as naughty books, of course--but in many cases the two were combined, in stories that told salacious tales of the nobility and their ministers which contained coded criticisms of official policies. Bawdy literature served as a form of encryption by which pre-revolutionary authors could ensure their disruptive messages could survive. (Added 12/8/2010, 12:21pm)

Daniel Drezner argues WikiLeaks will make things rough for historians down the line. [Chronicle of Higher Education]

As confused as the early analysis of the WikiLeaks cables has been, it is in the long term that their effect will be most negative for political scientists and diplomatic historians. (Added 12/8/2010, 9:57pm)

Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger on why he can't support WikiLeaks. [LarrySanger.com]

Let me put this another way.  There are a lot of things that the U.S. State Department does that democracy-loving people across the political landscape can agree are positive, or at least supportable.  But some of those things have to be done in secret.  That is the nature of diplomacy, espionage, and foreign policy in the real world, which is a dangerous, complex world.  To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.  Come on, folks--can't you see that?  It should be obvious, and it's very disappointing that it isn't more so to liberals.  Unless you count yourself as one of the aforementioned radical leftists, who want to see the U.S. lose, period, then you cannot support Wikileaks' action.  It is completely unsupportable.

Cintra Wilson on Americans' reaction to the leaked cables. [Hartford Advocate]

We have been so successfully brainwashed by the idea that we shouldn't know what our own government/military is doing, that when unadorned truth is given to us, it looks so alien that we actually believe we shouldn't see it. We've been kept in the dark for so long we're like prisoners released from solitary confinement who are so pained and frightened when exposed to sunshine we want to go back in the hole.

To get a feel for the primary documents, try our CableGate Roulette minisite, which serves up random stories handpicked from Wikileaks archive. The red button loads a story. [The Atlantic]

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls 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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