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A Discussion of WikiLeaks

On Tuesday, I was fortunate to attend the taping of Radio Berkman’s WikiLeaks-themed podcast, hosted by Professors Jonathan Zittrain and Larry Lessig.  The podcast, which I highly suggest you give a listen, covered the gamut of issues surrounding WikiLeaks, from its implications on Internet freedom to the internal workings of the organization itself, at least to the best we can surmise.

One of the more interesting bits of the conversation, initially raised by Ethan Zuckerman, is the idea that WikiLeaks has ‘happened’ in three phases: The first, an initial phase of being a neutral arbiter of whistleblowing — WikiLeaks got its start by mostly leaking documents related to globally minor but nonetheless important incidents — a Somali assassination order, the manual for Guantanamo prisoners, the member list for the far-right extremist British National Party.  During the second phase, WikiLeaks moved toward what Zuckerman calls “advocacy journalism” with the release of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video.  Lastly, describes Zuckerman, with the release of the Afghan War Logs and now the Embassy Cables, WikiLeaks has moved toward a less discriminate model of data dumping.

Splitting WikiLeaks into three phases, as several folks note during the podcast, makes it significantly easier for individuals to “get off the bus” so to speak, at points where they begin to feel uncomfortable.  For some, that was around the time of ‘Collateral Murder,’ for others, it’s now.

I haven’t publicly expressed my thoughts on the latest leak, nor do I feel the need to; fact is, I supported WikiLeaks wholeheartedly back when they were releasing Internet blacklists, and I supported the release of ‘Collateral Murder.’  On this latest batch of cables (as well as the one before it), I’m ambivalent, but when it comes down to it — and particularly in the wake of reactions, both by companies and my own government — I stand on the side of freedom.

That said, I think there are many discussions to be had on WikiLeaks acting as a firehose, rather than a journalistic entity.  There are also many discussions to be had on Julian Assange’s intentions.  Some of those conversations happen in the podcast, and others are going on all over the web.

Personally, I’m more concerned with the vital discussion on the implications this is having and will have on Internet freedom.

David Weinberger, who was also present for the podcast, writes: “If we take the war against Wikileaks as a war against the Net, I stand with the Net.” (Weinberger’s thoughts are elaborated in this blog post).  I agree, strongly, with Weinberger’s assessment that “Amazon and eBay’s PayPal have decided that they are on the Net but not of the Net” — with all the speculation laid out on the table, it appears that each company acted of their own accord.  Amazon doesn’t acknowledge the calls from Senator Joe Lieberman, rather, it claims WikiLeaks violated TOS by posting documents they didn’t have the rights to.  PayPal claims illegal activity and that their actions were in response to a letter from State, but State’s PJ Crowley states otherwise (the latest statement, released just before I hit publish, explains a bit further).  From where I stand, it looks like these companies, afraid of repercussions, took matters into their own hands rather than waiting for a legal order.

This all makes me terribly uncomfortable.  It’s worth noting that these aren’t new tactics – China has done an excellent job of pressuring corporations to behave according to its whims, something my government has condemned.  Google, for its part, realized its wrongs four years in and backed out of censoring in China, only to find itself ousted.  I wonder what would have happened if Amazon or PayPal had decided to take such a stand.

More laughable than uncomfortable, however, is the idea that the government (or any government) thinks it may actually be able to shut down WikiLeaks (or, well, any site) entirely.  Though the site’s original domain,, was revoked, 507 mirrors have cropped up to date, including one hosted by the vice president of Bolivia.  In order to even enter the realm of capability in taking WikiLeaks down, the US would have to be in cahoots with nearly every government on earth (and we know that, based on the cables, that isn’t going to happen).  The Internet would have to be shut down entirely.

Again, at this point in the game, it’s rather inconsequential whether one individual supports the release of the Embassy cables or not.  In the grand scheme of things, Julian Assange’s arrest and potential extradition to the US are inconsequential.  WikiLeaks is here.  That’s it, the game is changed.  We can argue all day about the ethics of leaking.  The US government can lock down information, try to prevent it from being leaked in the first place.  Laws can be created to discourage future whistleblowers from putting the information out there in the first place. None of that changes the fact that this happened, that the cables are out there.  And I doubt it will stop groups like Anonymous from employing DDoS attacks to (embarass? take down?) their perceived enemies (for more on that, read Evgeny Morozov’s take on the impact of Anonymous).

What is perhaps the most interesting consequence of all this is the effect it will have on my generation, a generation next at bat in this world.  As I wrote last week, I do believe we ‘digital natives’ might be viewing this differently than our parents are.  And I foresee our views on transparency and secrecy, no doubt still forming, taking shape around this incident and, farther down the road, changing the games of both journalism and government.

15 replies on “A Discussion of WikiLeaks”

I had very mixed emotions about this latest release (“dump”), primarily because of, as you mention, it’s indiscriminate nature. However, I have since seen reports that Assange actually contacted the American Embassy in London asking for help in selecting documents that would be life-threatening and/or of truly vital security interests. He was apparently told he had to turn over all the documents, as they were “stolen property”, and they refused to help him, in essence, make the release more discriminating. After hearing this, while still somewhat concerned by the nature of some of the documents released, I feel WikiLeaks at least attempted to do the best they could. So, I guess our government now has some blame to bear for the release of overly sensitive material?

where is the firehose? why are you people talking about a dump? so far wikileaks has only released a very small fraction of the cables they have. most have already been published by newspapers first.

their leak to arab newspapers is revealing of a consistent policy (so far) to let others first publish, help them redact, etc.

this uniquely american mixed feelings and ambivalence is something I fail to understand, there is no dump (yet).

Now everyone has been operating on the assumption that this is the first time we experience something like this, that is not true, the British MPs expense account scandal of 2009 is a very similar leak, and it involved an actual dump.

the daily telegraph had access to the full trove of documents (measured in millions), and started publishing some. that was while a legal battle was raging over full disclosure of these documents. eventually the courts ordered disclosure of the data (not clear if uncensored version was ever released through courts)

now in the past even public records where not really available to the public, due to technological limits mediators like researchers and journalists where required.

this disclosure was different though. the guardian trying to catch up to the scoop and realizing the amount of data is too big for them to analyze sufficiently quickly enough put it all in a website and crowd sourced very basic aspects of analysis (people could flag interesting items).

this is a dump of data, a proper firehose. yet there is nothing wrong with it. right?

but why? how is it different than the leaked cables? it contains potentially incrementing information but the vast majority is not. government (the whole of polity really) tried hard to protect that information using a variety of excuses.

is it because it is about corruption and not potential war crimes? is it because it is about elected officials not appointed ones?

the way I see it difference is not in the data at all (specially since u guys are feeling queasy about data that is yet to be released) the difference is purely in legal form. but the legal form came late in the game. in fact it was whistle-blowers that forced parliament to stop trying to change legislation to prevent disclosure. which means without whistle-blowers there was a real possibility the legal form wouldn’t exist.

so what is the position here exactly? dumps are good only if courts get involved at some point? dumps are good only if courts allow them regardless of the power politics around it?

and if crowd sourcing analysis and mining of massive data is widely considered as a very normal thing to do today due to technology. and that includes voluntarily provided data, specially aggregated for crowd sourcing data. court enforced disclosures. what is the ethical position that makes whistle-blower provided data exempt from this now normal tendency to crowd source?

where is the firehose? why are you people talking about a dump? so far wikileaks has only released a very small fraction of the cables they have. most have already been published by newspapers first.

I recognize the manner in which WikiLeaks has been releasing cables; by ‘dump’ I meant more the format; a large-scale release (or potential release) of a massive amount of cables, some of which are less whistleblowing and more entertaining.

In our earlier discussion, you made a point that I’ve been thinking about and think is worth making again (I believe Lessig also briefly touched on it in the podcast too): WikiLeaks received 250,000 cables. At that point, their choices are: a) to dump all the data online themselves and let others pore through it, b) to do what they have done; allow mainstream and a few smaller newspapers to cherry-pick through the cables or c) to attempt to analyze the cables with too small a team to do so.

Your point resonated with me, in that I now believe WikiLeaks made the right decision in how they’ve chosen to release the data (note to those who thinks WikiLeaks was in the wrong: assuming the data was handed to them, what do you suppose they ought to have done?). Though I can’t speak for anyone else, I can say that my concern was impact. My earlier thinking was that, by releasing (potentially) thousands upon thousands of cables, there’s a chance that some of the more damning ones will fall by the wayside.

ok didn’t realize you where concerned with impact till our chat yesterday.

Lessig made a great point that was unfortunately missed by most re impact, but I don’t think manner of releasing is central to what the impact will be.

again the UK MPs fiasco is a good example to measure by, on the surface it had impact (resignations and what not), but what it really demonstrated to the public was the deep corruption of almost all politicians. the real impact should have been a shake up of the political system. that didn’t happen. in fact I’m sure in two years it will be a distant memory.

tweaking rythm and tempo of disclosure is not going to change that, tone and depth of analysis can change impact. but what is really required is a totally different framing, and also connecting with existing narratives and actions seeking deep structural reforms (or even better revolution).

to me that means wikileaks committed a big mistake, by attempting to engage western journalism at all they are dooming their work to having less impact. by trying to fit within the already stale narrative of transparency correcting demoracy, the 4th estate and what not, it’s like we believe journalism is failing to check power because it no longer has access to whistleblowers so we come up with technological solutions. when in fact journalism never lost this access (UK case) it lost its meaning and impact.

in a way this is similar to lessig’s point that by merely exposing sources on money in US politics without agitating and organizing for a change in how campaigning works the only impact is an impression that all politics is dirt and people walking away (similar to nothing new in leaked cables let’s resign ourselves to eternal imperialism).

To bad I didnt find this earlier, I ve had so many talks with my friends and we have diffrent opinions on Wikileaks, this post makes it a lot clearer. Thank you!

Nabil: Im living in the south of Sweden, and of what i’ve heard the people speaks about same things down here. Kalle: So what do you think about wikileaks? You could contact me if you want to speak more :) My mail is: hellu _ hiho (a) hotmail (dot) com!

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