Posts about wikileaks

The disruptors arrive at Davos

Last year at Davos, I said I was among the disrupted when I preferred to be among the disruptors.

The disruptor arrived last night. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, former spokesman for Wikileaks and founder of the competitive OpenLeaks, came to a dinner about transparency at which I was a panelist, alongside the Guardian’s Timothy Garton-Ash, Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth, and Harvard’s David Kennedy, led by the NY Times’ Arthur Sulzberger.

Sad irony: the session on transparency was off-the-record. I asked for it to be open; Sulzberger asked in turn; no go. Fill in your punchline here.

But Dan Perry of the AP was there and interviewed the hyphenates, Domscheit-Berg and Garton-Ash, on the record. Under Chatham House Rule, we can summarize the talk without attributing it.

In truth, there was little disagreement — until we switched from transparent government to transparent business.

About government, the speakers put forward the expected enthusiasm about forcing more transparency upon government with the expected hesitation about potential harm resulting from incomplete redaction and about making government more secret rather than less. No surprises. One person in the room — a journalist I’ve heard here before who inevitably supports power structures — actually opposed transparent government (preferring mere accountability … though how one gets to the latter without the former, I have no idea).

About business, we did disagree. The question was posed: is secrecy a competitive advantage? Most of the panelists and the room said it was. I disagreed as did one other person you might expect to disagree. I argued that transparency is not about just malfeasance but also about a new and necessary way to operate in collaboration with one’s customers and public. Old, institutional companies will miss another boat as new, transparent companies take advantage of the age of openness to do business in a new way.

What I see is that when corporations are subjected to leaks, the reaction will be different. They’ll have more defenders from the power structure. They’ll too rarely see the opportunity in operating as open companies. But it won’t stop the leaks and the march of transparency.

Tomorrow, I’m going to an awards ceremony held by PublicEye.CH, naming the worst corporation in the world (you can still vote) and there, Domscheit-Berg will present OpenLeaks. This is the counterweight to the congregation of the Davos Man.

* Note also that one of my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY, Matt Terenzio, just launched Localeaks, which will enable any newspaper in the U.S. to receive leaks from whistleblowers. Very cool. More about it here.

Do we hold the state to be legitimate?

David Carr wrote in today’s New York Times:

“Mainstream media may spend a lot of time trying to ferret information out of official hands, but they largely operate in the belief that the state is legitimate and entitled to at least some of its secrets.”

In Western democracies, we may well work under the belief that the state is legitimate, but we surely don’t operate under the view that everything it does is legitimate. That is our job — isn’t it? — to find and expose its illegitimate acts.

I do not think I can accept as journalistic canon the idea that reporters and editors in every nation should view their states as legitimate. To the contrary, we root for them to challenge the legitimacy of illegitimate states; don’t we expect them to be the first, best hammer on the walls of secrecy built by the tyrannical and the corrupt?

Isn’t legitimacy a moving target? We can point to those who believe the actions — and thus the governing — of George Bush was illegitimate as it pertained to war. RIchard Nixon’s governance was taken to be so illegitimate — under pressure of journalism — that it collapsed. Legitimacy is usually accepted. But it should not be assumed.

Implicit in what Carr writes and in what those he quotes say is this notion that what separates professional, institutional journalism from Wikileaks — and, by extension, anarchy — is that it accepts the legitimacy of the incumbents:

“‘WikiLeaks is not a news organization, it is a cell of activists that is releasing information designed to embarrass people in power,’ said George Packer, a writer on international affairs at The New Yorker. ‘They simply believe that the State Department is an illegitimate organization that needs to be exposed, which is not really journalism.’”

That’s a troubling line to draw and too close to the truth today that news organizations too often side with the powerful, with the legacy.

I do believe that governments do need secrets, but as I’ve written, the problem Wikileaks exposes is that government is too often secret by default and transparent by force when it should be transparent by default and secret by necessity.

Separately in Carr’s piece, I was sorely disappointed in Columbia J-school Dean Nick Lemann’s continued insistence — since 2006 — in trying to fan the flames of a blogger v. journalist war that never broke out: “People from the digital world are always saying we don’t need journalists at all because information is everywhere and there in no barrier to entry.” Name, two, Dean.

Me & media on Wikileaks

Here are some appearances I’ve been making regarding Wikileaks, transparency, and press freedom.

On CNN with John King Thursday night talking about the hacking of MasterCard et al, quoting this Guardian editorial arguing that the attacks are a form of civil (cyber) disobedience in defense of a free internet:

Here’s a link to BBC audio, on the same subject, discussing the shift from power-to-power to peer-to-peer architecture.

The Berliner Zeitung BZ asked for a brief op-ed. Here’s the English text:

Should Wikileaks be stopped? The question is somewhat irrelevant. The movement it exemplifies – transparency – cannot be stopped.

I’m not saying that secrecy is dead. We still need secrets – about security, crime, privacy, diplomacy. But we have far too many secrets in government. One thing that Wikileaks reveals is the abuse of government secrecy.

But now governments will have to learn how to operate under the assumption that anything they do can be seen on the front page of this newspaper. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I say that government must become transparent by default, secret by necessity.

Transparency breeds trust. Whether for government or journalism or business, operating in the open enables the opportunity to collaborate with constituents.

We in journalism must recognize that Wikileaks is an element of a new ecosystem of news. It is a new form of the press. So we must defend its rights as media. If we do not, we could find our own rights curtailed. Asking whether Wikileaks should be stopped is exactly like asking whether this newspaper should be stopped when it reveals what
government does not want the public to know. We have been there before; let us never return.

Just saying

I can use Visa and Mastercard to pay for porn and support anti-abortion fanatics, Prop 8 homophobic bigots, and the Ku Klux Klan. But I can’t use them or PayPal to support Wikileaks, transparency, the First Amendment, and true government reform.

Wikileaks: Power shifts from secrecy to transparency

Welt am Sontag in Germany asked me for an op-ed on Wikileaks. Here it is, auf Englisch. Hier, auf Deutsch.

Government should be transparent by default, secret by necessity. Of course, it is not. Too much of government is secret. Why? Because those who hold secrets hold power.

Now Wikileaks has punctured that power. Whether or not it ever reveals another document—and we can be certain that it will—Wikileaks has made us all aware that no secret is safe. If something is known by one person, it can be known by the world.

But that has always been the case. The internet did not kill secrecy. It only makes copying and spreading information easier and faster. It weakens secrecy. Or as a friend of mine says, the internet democratizes leaking. It used to be, only the powerful could hold and uncover knowledge. Now many can.

Of course, we need secrets in society. In issues of security and criminal investigation as well as the privacy of citizens and some matters of operating the state—such as diplomacy—sunlight can damage. If government limited secrecy to that standard—necessity—there would be nothing for Wikileaks to leak.

But as we can see from what has been leaked, there is much we should know—actions taken in our name—that government holds from us. We also know that the revelation of these secrets has not been devastating. America’s and Germany’s relationship has not collapsed because one undiplomatic diplomat called Angela Merkel uncreative. Wikileaks head Julian Assange told the Guardian that in four years, “there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon, that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities.”

So perhaps the lesson of Wikileaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought. That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.

But that is not what’s happening. In the U.S., the White House announced a new security initiative to clamp down on information. The White House even warned government workers not to look at Wikileaks documents online because they were still officially secret, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of secret as something people do not know. I fear that one legacy of Wikileaks’ work will be that officials will communicate less in writing and more by phone, diminishing the written record for journalism and history.

I have become an advocate of openness in government, business, and even our personal lives and relationships. The internet has taught me the benefits of sharing and connecting information.

This is why I have urged caution in not going overboard with the privacy mania sweeping much of modern society and especially Germany. Beware the precedents we set, defaulting to closed and secret, whether in pixelating public views in Google Street View, or in disabling the advertising targeting that makes online marketing more valuable and will pay for much of the web’s free content.

I fear that a pixel fog may overcome us, blurring what should be becoming clearer. I had hoped instead that we would pull back the curtain on society, letting the sunlight in. That is our choice.

In researching my book on the benefits of publicnness (to be published as Public Parts in the U.S. and Das Deutsche Paraoxon in Germany), I have found that new technology often leads to fears about exposure of privacy. The invention of the Gutenberg press, the camera, the mass press, the miniature microphone, and now the internet have all sparked such worry.

Now, in Wikileaks, we see a new concern: that secrecy dies. It does not; secrecy lives. But it is wounded. And it should be. Let us use this episode to examine as citizens just how secret and how transparent our governments should be. For today, in the internet age, power shifts from those who hold secrets to those to create openness. That is our emerging reality.

Business, be warned: You are next.

: More: This Economist post thinks likewise.

With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personel, technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.

: Jay Rosen is concerned that Julian Assange ducked the question of how diplomacy can operate without assurances of secure communication.

: My friend who suggested that Wikileaks democratizes the leak is Dave Morgan. I spared him German notoriety. And here’s Dave’s related column.

: Me on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz Sunday morning:

A taxonomy of transparency

I’m writing the section of Public Parts on truly public government — transparency leading to collaboration. I am trying to come up with a simple taxonomy of transparency, a list of what should be open by default. Help me with my definition and list of buckets:

* * *

The first step to public government is transparency. My definition: opening up the information and the actions of government at every level by default in a way that enables any citizen to take, analyze, and use that data, extracting or adding value to it and overseeing the actions of those who act in our name, with our money. That data should include:
• Our laws and regulations—as they are being considered and after they are enacted, showing who did what to each along the way.
• Government budgets and spending, including information on who is paid.
• Government’s actions. I want to see crimes, complaints, actions, conferences and other events, even useful correspondence.
• Government information of every sort. The New Republic says making weather data public “produces more than $800 million in economic value.” Global positioning data enabled the creation of now-indispensible smart phones and navigation systems. Agricultural data saves and makes money on farms. If the government knows it, we should know it.
In What Would Google Do? I joked—well, half-joked—that the Freedom of Information Act should be repealed and turned inside out so that we no longer have to ask government to open up our information; government must ask our permission to keep it from us—especially now that technology gives us the tools to make use of it. There are a legitimate reasons not to release data: because it reveals personally identifiable information about citizens (e.g., your tax bill—though, again, that’s published in Scandinavia) or it compromises security or criminal investigations. Other than that, our information is ours and so we need access to it. In our developing information economy, this data has real and growing value. So cough it up.

* * *

Of course, the discussion is all the more timely thanks to Wikileaks’ latest deluge of once-secret data. The further question is how anything can be held in secret and what the appropriate line is for secrets. In the midst of the last Wikileaks disclosure, I suggested that the only cure for leaks is transparency: when the public trusts that a secret is secret for good reason, then revealing it is more clearly a violation of norms and the common good. But when most government actions and information are held from us, then exposing them is more just but will bring the collateral damage of also exposing things that should properly be held in secret. Whom do we trust with that judgment? The government? Wikileaks? The Guardian and Times? That’s what is being wrestled down right now.

In any case, I’d appreciate any help with the organization of thinking around what’s properly public and not. Thanks.

Value-added journalism

I asked Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, whether his paper should have started Wikileaks. I wondered whether the Guardian was looking at WIkileaks the way it looked at HuffPo when it started (that is, ‘darn, we should have thought of that, so we will’ … and it started CommentIsFree). Is Wikileaks a tool for investigative journalism? Or is it better for Wikileaks to be separate? Would being associated with a news organization subject it to different standards of verification and transparency?

“I think it’s better separate,” Rusbridger responded. Wikileaks does things the paper wouldn’t want to do or couldn’t do. And a paper is easier to attack by governments and companies; it has greater liability than a stateless news organization, as Jay Rosen calls them. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Rusbridger said. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

Right. The Afghan war logs story is a case study in what Rusbridger would call the mutualization of journalism. I’d call it collaboration. The leakers and their medium — that is, their mediator, Wikileaks — did what they did and the paper’s journalists added value: digging through the data, giving it perspective, editing out dangerous pieces, getting reaction, and then giving it audience and attention.

That is the role journalists will continuously perform in the future: adding value. Wikileaks and the leaker didn’t need the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel; as Wikileaks has proven many times, it can publish its information to the world without help. But they chose to work through those publications because of the value they would add.

Thanks to the internet, the marginal cost of sharing information today is zero. So the value of the journalist in merely distributing information is nearing zero. Distribution was just the stranglehold the journalists’ companies had on the market that enabled them to be supported by monopoly economics. They can no longer build their businesses on that barrier to entry. This change in market reality forces us to examine journalists’ true value to the public in the market.

In the war logs story, journalists added value. In the story of a town board meeting, journalists also need to add value, not merely acting as stenographers — a task most anyone could perform — but adding perspective (which might — horrors! — mean having an opinion), standards of behavior (you shouldn’t call the mayor an idiot without the links to back it up), and audience (which doesn’t mean distribution in the old sense of a stranglehold; it means the ability to get people to pay attention because you bring them value and they’ll click on your links).

If you don’t add value, then you’re not needed. And that’s not necessarily bad. When you don’t add value and someone else can perform the task as stenographer or leaker or reporter — and you can link to it — then that means you save resources and money. This means journalists need to look at where they add maximum value.

What if there are no secrets?

Is no secret safe?

That’s the moral to the Wikileaks war log story: you never know what might be leaked. Of course, that itself is nothing new: Whenever we reveal information to even one person, we risk it being spread. The ethic of confidentiality (and privacy) rests with the recipient of that information.

So what’s new now? There are more means to get information since it is pooled and digital. There are more means to share information; Daniel Ellsberg had to go through media to spread his Pentagon Papers while Wikileak chose to go through media so they could add value (perspective and attention) but didn’t have to. And there are new means to stay anonymous in the process.

I’m writing a book arguing that we are becoming more public and that’s good — and that institutions (government, companies) have no choice but to live up to our new standards of transparency and openness. But I am also examining when transparency goes too far.

Is the Wikileaks story an example of crossing a line? First, we have to ask where the line should be. I think it has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency. Rather than asking what should be made public we should ask why something should be kept private. Imagine if all government information and actions were public except matters of security and personal and private identification. There will be pressure to head there.

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be moved by force.

Now that they’ve made the war log public, it makes us examine the impact.

We need to ask whether the knowledge that anything written down could be made public will cause less to be written — and we lose information in the long run. That is my concern about efforts to make *all* government communication, including person-to-person email, permanent and public. I imagine that people will stop saying important things in email and instead pick up the phone and we lose the record.

We need to ask whether an ethic of transparency can be expected when leakers can be anonymous and their leaks swift.

We need to ask whether the government would have been better off making more public so that the leaker’s selective publication does not solely set the agenda and the government is stuck reacting.

In the war logs, we are learning things we should know. It’s the leakers — Wikileaks and its three media outlets — who are deciding what not to make public (with some consultation, post-leak, from government) and what should be open. So government loses the ability to decide secrets. Now leakers do. Which side do we trust to decide?

The sane response to leaks, I think, is to open up as much as possible. Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked. If we had the faith that we knew more, there’d be fewer leaks, fewer reasons to.

I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak — in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.

ANOTHER THOUGHT: This story is a step to the end of access journalism. (NO, it won’t end. Whenever people like me declare the death of something, disbelieve and discount it; we’re just saying we’re heading away from something).

But Wikileaks didn’t need, doesn’t want, won’t ever get official, journalistic, beat access. The derailing of a general in Rolling Stone didn’t come from a beat reporter who cared about access anymore. ProPublica’s work isn’t built on access.

When I talk about how little is spent on investigative reporting in America — as a proportion of total editorial spending across all media, it’s minuscule … microscopic — editors remind me that my calculation doesn’t include beats and beats are the heart of reporting. True and not true. It’s true to the extent that we want ongoing coverage and want it performed by people who build up experience if not expertise in the subject. It’s not true to the extent that reporters who depend on access from the subjects won’t ruin the relationship by breaking the subject’s secrets or the access (and the reporter’s supposed value) ends. (This is why reporters aren’t supposed to blog their opinions about their beats, according to fresh orthodoxy: They would lose access.)

In access journalism, leaks come from the subject. In unaffiliated journalism, leaks come in spite of the subject. As more reporting is done through mechanisms like Wikileaks and ProPublica and bloggers and advocates, I think we’ll see more breaking of secrets, which reinforces my point above: the best way to fight leaks is transparency (not black-out paint).

The Pentagon learned that lesson just a bit when it realized that giving more access would mean more control. Thus the embedding program in Iraq and Afghanistan. But news organizations can’t afford to have reporters embedded in the war zone. Coverage was too dependent on relationships. That honeymoon is ended.

The coverage of this war revealed much of what we know from the war logs. Alex Thomson says, though, that the logs validated what we know. They added facts we couldn’t get with access.

As news organizations shrink, we’ll be able to afford less access journalism — fewer beat reporters building relationships with their subjects — and more reporting — and subversion — from people who have a viewpoint and an agenda. The tone and means of journalism changes. It becomes more uncomfortable. But then, isn’t journalism supposed to be uncomfortable?

: MORE: Many notes from Jay Rosen here: “I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.”

Jay talks about stateless journalism. Dave Winer says the blogosphere is that. I don’t think the issue is that journalism is stateless but instead that journalism is becoming independent of organizations (pace Clay Shirky). Journalism lacks affiliation. Anybody can feed WIkileaks; Wikileaks can feed anybody. The organizational — nevermind state — point of control disappears. Journalism is everywhere and its up to the public to decide what news is.

Though from another perspective, stateless does matter as we’re seeing more of it across many sectors of society. Our enemy in this war is stateless. Businesses are stateless. Journalism now becomes stateless. I believe the tools of publicness — that is, the internet’s — enable us to organize new societies around states.

: MORE: Andrew Potter breaks down the discussion into four questions.