Posts about transparency

I was wrong

I just want to get this on the record and off my (fully clothed) chest: I was wrong about Anthony Weiner.

I’d said nothing about the whole hoo-ha because I didn’t think it was worth the attention. Then I got a call from Howard Kurtz’ Reliable Sources to come on last Sunday and talk about it. My wife said, Why are you doing that? I said, I’ll be on the right side. As always, she was right. On the show, I said that media were using this as an opportunity for sophomoric jokes and that the fuss over a penis was a symptom of American Puritanism. What’s the worst that happened here? I asked: So what if he had a stupid picture on his phone and accidentally tweeted it, so long as he wasn’t sexually harassing anyone? But that’s not the worst that happened.

Weiner lied. That is the story. That’s what haters said in email to me after the CNN segment. They were right.

What’s most amazing to me is that anyone in politics in this age could still be stupid enough to think that the coverup won’t be what kills them. That’s not just a matter of the age of publicness and the net that I write about. It is perhaps Richard Nixon’s most important legacy. I gave Weiner too much credit when I thought he must have figured this out.

The personal irony for me is that I’ve long thought Weiner is a weasel. I chose to overlook that in this case. Wrong again. I confronted him at a Personal Democracy Forum a few years ago (it so happens that PDF11 is going on right now) over his support of noxious legislation to raise fines on so-called indecency on broadcast. Weiner would go onto Howard Stern’s show as an alleged fan to get the attention but then he’d turn around and throw Stern, the First Amendment, and freedom of speech to the wind for a politically expedient vote. So he voted with prudery and isn’t it always the case that the prudes are the ones with something to hide? Now we see what he was hiding.

I’m trying to pull back from my personal embarrassment and stupidity at giving this shmuck the benefit of the doubt and see the lessons here about our age of publicness. There are many. It fascinates me that Twitter provides such an easy way for people to connect for *any* purpose. It astounds me that Weiner thought he could do this under his name with his face and think it would not end up being a public act. Once he was public to the extent of sharing with one person — a stranger — then it’s nothing for that to be shared with the world in an instant. All this affirms my belief that the only sane way to operate in one’s life today — as a public figure especially — is as if *anything* you do can and will be seen by *anyone.* I would still like to think that eventually this will lead to an assumption, a default of transparency.

But then, I keep forgetting the calculate into this view the forgetful, venal stupidity of the public official. That’s where I was wrong. Have I said that enough?

: I emailed a link to this post to the people who emailed me after the CNN segment. They were nasty in how they said it but they were right.

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.

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.

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:

Big Brother’s Big Brother

Here are paragraphs about Wikileaks I just inserted into the chapter of Public Parts that I happen to be writing right now about government. Very much beta. Take a look:

* * *

Wikileaks has pushed the definition and question of transparency to its limit and beyond, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through media organizations including the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and OWNI, a French site devoted to digital journalism that built a crowdsourcing tool so readers could cull through the docs to find important bits. The U.S. government screeched indignantly about the leaks, calling them illegal and dangerous. But then, the leaks revealed government actions that are or should be illegal. Who holds the higher ground?

The media organizations Wikileaks worked through said they redacted names and published only documents that would not endanger individuals. So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press? And does it much matter now that any whistleblower has the power to leak information anonymously via computers that run in countries beyond the arm of the law from other countries? Wikileaks’ Twitter profile lists its location as “everywhere.” Now nothing, not even war, can be carried out in assured secrecy.

The only solution to leaks is then not more secrecy but more transparency. If we trusted government to determine what needed to be secret—if its default were public and it had nothing else to hide but things that would be harmful if public—then leaks would be a clear violation of our norms and of the common good.

One way or another—by force of through sanity—we are at the dawn of the transparent age. But it’s not going to be a pretty or easy transition. For the first facts to be dragged into the sunlight will be the ugly ones that somebody thinks need to be exposed. Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad. Only when governments realize that their citizens can now watch them—better than they can watch their citizens, we hope—will we see transparency bring deterrence to bad actors and bad acts. Then we become Big Brother’s Big Brother. Or we can hope.