WikiLeaks, Freedom of Expression, and Need for Maturity


Hands Raised

I'm not entirely sure where I stand on WikiLeaks to offer my personal take on recent events. However, I've been looking at articles from mainstream media, both in Europe and in the US, as well as the many posts about the topic in my feed reader and did not want to hold off acknowledging the topic — it is important we think about the implications.

What is WikiLeaks?

In case you have not heard or read about it, WikiLeaks is a non profit organization founded by human rights activists, journalists and former hackers. 39-year old Australian journalist and hacker Julian Assange is the leader. A small number of people drive hundreds of collaborators all over the world — all under conditions of anonymity.

Their Website was launched in 2006 with the purpose of spreading exclusive news on international politics, corruption, and corporate dealings. They're financed through donations by individuals and organizations funneled to a global foundation network.

The organization recently released more than 250,000 confidential documents about political leaders, terrorism, and nuclear arsenals, to international newspapers.

Freedom of expression

Instead of jumping to conclusions, which alas we're too used to doing these days — no doubt, a product of the speed at which information comes at us, as well as the peer pressure of being seen saying something about a fresh issue — I thought it best to present what I have found helpful in my research.

Having been online for the better part of ten plus years, I've had the most varied experiences, and not once a constructive dialogue ignited from an anonymous comment. Gerald Baron, a respected and experienced crisis communication professional, writes about trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency:

[trolls]… lurk around blogs, news sites and websites, contaminating almost every conversation with their toxic expressions. […] I think they are a significant contributor to the decline of public trust and the disagreeable atmosphere surrounding much of our public discourse.

His most important contribution to the conversation though comes with the thought that if transparency was the ultimate good, then internet freedom protectors above all would demand an end to anonymity on the web

There are a couple of posts on WikiLeaks being cut off from its domain host by Dave Winer, and from its donation collection site PayPal by Read WriteWeb. Nick Carr contributes his take on the cloud press, cloud computing is becoming "the 21st century equivalent of the printing press," he writes, paraphrasing Newsweek COO Joseph Galarneau throughout.

Jeff Jarvis has written quite a lot about WikiLeaks, mainly looking at the issue through the lens of publicness:

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.

And it does look like businesses are next. Mind Hacks picks up on psychological warfare in Iraq. And Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land contributes information on how to search WikiLeaks with Cablesearch.

Need for maturity

Many have passed on the post by Gary Goldhammer when I shared it on Twitter earlier in the week. He writes that transparency without judgement is gossip, not journalism. This also brings us back to the issue of transparency and openness. Goldhammer states that:

Transparency also requires judgment and analysis.

[…] from where I’m sitting, WikiLeaks and those who support its brand of “journalism” are neither inquisitive nor vital to global discourse. WikiLeaks is not part of "that media" — it is part of a rogue, opportunistic and reckless media that has little understanding of journalistic principles nor concern for the fallout created by its selfish actions.

You want to be “part of that media?” Great, then grow up and act responsibly. Find the story and tell it with context and conscience.

Maturity and accountability seem like a good way to get started here. As Giancarlo Bosetti writes for La Repubblica print, US edition, on December 1, liberally translated by me, no friendship would outlast the conversations your friends have about you with others.

***

As for my own take on constructive discourse of any kind, especially on this blog. I've had plenty of scummy bottom feeding sites scrape this content, and unappealing individuals throw words bigger than they could comprehend around when posting anonymously. Freedom of expression comes with a price: and that is accountability.

Want to have a voice and an impact in the conversation? How about taking responsibility?

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0 responses to “WikiLeaks, Freedom of Expression, and Need for Maturity”

  1. I wonder two things about WikiLeaks. 1) If transparency is so important, why does WikiLeaks hide behind a cloak of secrecy? 2) May WikiLeaks be in violation of US copyright laws? What a person writes becomes copyrighted the moment it is written. The right is reinforced by registration, but that is not a prerequisite as I understand it. No one is allowed to use a person’s written words without that person’s permission.

  2. WikiLeaks is, in my opinion, the most recent manifestation of what a world looks like when intentionally private information becomes unintentionally public. It is a warning sign to those who say one thing on the outside and another on the inside.
    In today’s Sunday Times, Clarkson writes that even though WikiLeaks may be legal, it’s still ‘wrong’ – and elsewhere, the founder of WikiLeaks is portrayed as a wanted criminal by Interpol.
    Regardless of the innocence or guilt of the WikiLeaks founder, we have a tendency to want to know who is to blame; localising our frustration onto one person.
    If only it were that simple.
    It was that simple when Tony Hayward from BP was the target in the BP oil crisis and it was inevitable his head would roll. He didn’t help himself to be honest, and it could have been so different (as we discuss in this document here: http://thisfluidworld.com/about-fluid/fluid-library/benefiting-from-collaboration-and-transparency/ ).
    Instead, WikiLeaks is just one mutation of a virus. The publication of such information is actually leaderless as a concept, by the time you finish reading this post, will have mutated into several more underground operations with no names nor faces.
    You can point your finger at WikiLeaks or it’s founder – but in terms of the concept, you can’t arrest it, you can’t stop it, you can’t legislate against it, you can’t bury it. It will never stop.
    In another piece in today’s Times, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary states with some ebullience “Let me offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at it a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve.”
    This statement is fairly innocuous, yet he finishes by saying (in relation to WikiLeaks) “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
    Sadly, My Gates is deluded.
    It echoes the blatant ignorance of BP’s Tony Hayward when he said “The impact will be very, very modest.” Or when he proclaimed “I want my life back.”
    I’m sure the families of the 11 people who died feel the impact was quite big…and they are certainly more validated in wishing lives back.
    Anyway – back to Gates and “…fairly modest.”
    The future is going to be remarkably upsetting for those who think that operations like WikiLeaks will have a modest impact on anything.
    Sure, at present, it’s hard to see how leaked documents can make an impact on policy…but believe me, this paradigm shift affects every single element of the way we run companies and rule countries.
    We are now living in a world where we must internally communicate as if the information could become public.
    We must behave inside our office walls as if our customers could view our behaviour on camera.
    I know, I know…it’s a horrible truth isn’t it?
    Just as we saw in the angry tube worker case (http://www.jonathanmacdonald.com/?p=4024 ), there is simply nowhere to hide anymore – the citizens are armed with weapons of mass communication and the un-trackable force of ‘document leakers’ now have the internet to use as an instant distribution mechanism which acts faster than any law, regulation, or PR activity you can throw at it.
    In another article in today’s Times, Prince Albert of Monaco is shown hiring a Parisian advertising firm to make a film of him being environmentally aware, in a bid to silence a disgruntled blogger who is uncovering the ‘real’ Monaco…”a sunny place for shady people”.
    This is yet another example of The Fallacy of Old World PR (http://www.jonathanmacdonald.com/?p=4342 ) that so many fall into.
    You wanna know the biggest thing that ‘Social Media’ brings? It’s what we call in this fluid world: the democratisation of brands.
    Robert Gates, Tony Hayward and Prince Albert are all living within this reality. A reality where control is no longer solely theirs. A reality where the general public can adjust brand identities, enforcement of laws and the governance of countries.
    The only pragmatic antidote is to turn the lens away from ‘stopping’ the WikiLeaks’s or the disgruntled bloggers, and point it back on ourselves.
    We need to look at our levels of corporate transparency and rapidly address our levels of trading with integrity.
    We need to focus on building trusted value exchanges rather than building hierarchies that place us further away from worrying about such petty things as civil rights.
    Hiring advertising firms, taking down websites and arresting figureheads will categorically not stop the sea-change that is occurring.
    It just wastes money and time – the only people who benefit are lawyers.
    Acta est fabula, plaudite!

  3. I wanted to tell you formally that I use several different filters to find relevant material online and that your blog always comes through and is always great content. It’s almost as though there’s a kind of harmonization occurring, where more and more blogs are writing about more and more of the same things. I use Zite.com and get 98% of stuff that’s exactly the same. It’s as though people just copy off one another.
    But your blog is always original. I myself am an artist, writer, and sound designer, amateur video artist, so my work has been about creating original, relevant content for the last twenty years. I need inspiration, so I look for original content, and not just relevant stuff for the sake of relevance. I need inspiration, I need to feed my mind, and basically I just wanted to say that your blog has been a huge inspiration for me, always feeding my mind..

  4. I like founder of Fast Company Alan Webber’s perspective on Wikileaks – maybe governments and organizations need accept the new reality: dont say or do something you wouldnt want published… And anyway, isnt journalism supposed to investigate what those same instituitions are really doing?
    His post: http://rulesofthumbbook.blogspot.com/2010/12/stopping-to-think-about-wikileaks.html
    However, I do take issue with the anonymity factor. If govt./org.s must be transparent, writers/journalists must too…

  5. @Charles- valid questions both. Thank you for stopping by.
    @Jonathan – so many links for further reading, thank you. “We need to look at our levels of corporate transparency and rapidly address our levels of trading with integrity.” I agree, and that includes those pointing fingers at others. And indeed, more rules and laws are like fences trying to keep water in.
    @Marc-Alexandre – I’m really glad the content is helpful to you. Thank you for saying that. I receive similar feedback from many entrepreneurs and professionals in larger businesses who hardly ever comment. This path here is one of discovery. I don’t write what everyone else is writing because I get bored with pervasive topics, even when I feel I could add to them. And I know this blog is certainly not for skimming.
    @Denise – thank you for the link. Alan is a deep thinker, and I always enjoy his perspective on issues.

  6. I am really not sure Wikileaks will change anything.
    The things they are disclosing are the classic truths everyone whisper, the difference of having evidence of them or not really doesn’t make much of a difference at all.
    Ironically, the most huge of revolutions and changes will make no change whatsoever. Mainly because there are too many interests between the countries mentioned by their reports for them to “unfriend” each other solely based on these documents.
    I agree with you 100% though, “freedom of expression comes with a price: and that is accountability”.

  7. The whole Wikileaks thing is a storm in a tea cup. Some leaders and diplomats will be annoyed; they undoubtedly have thin skins. Will there be changes in US foreign policy as a result of this reckless mass-publishing? Sure. They will be modest simply because it’s in no one’s interest to make too big a deal about the leaks. Besides – their diplomats are sending the same sort of information and observations back to their embassies and governments! (They might not be spying in quite the same way that US diplomats were asked to, however.) I think that overall, the diplomatic core is quite sanguine about it all. After all, it really wasn’t a case of “if’ something like this could happen, but more “when”. Most will be glad it was the US that got “hit”, all while scrambling to reduce the chances of it happening to them as well!
    The revelations will change how some countries interact and it’s good to get some of the duplicity out into the open. Heck, if the world was fair, it would change the debate about green technologies in the US, about a nuclear Iran and it could change how China handles and views North Korea. But the world isn’t and it won’t.
    On your other topic, Valeria, anonymous commentary, Julie Zhou, a product design manager at Facebook, wrote an interesting op-ed in the NY Times about online anonymity: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/opinion/30zhuo.html?ref=contributors
    Charles: Copyright doesn’t apply to US government work; copyright might apply in other countries, however. And the memos, etc, are works for hire; if copyright could be applied, it would be US government that owned it.
    I’m not sure that freedom of expression has the cost of accountability. A whole string of people will be responsible for the wikileaks “revelations”, and they are accountable for their actions. They are morally culpable if, when, someone is harmed as a result of their impetuous publishing. Can they be held directly accountable, though? The chap who leaked the cables, yes. Everyone else in the chain? I’m not so sure they can be, or that we want them to be.
    I’d be very wary of enforcing accountability. Efforts to punish those who published the cables automatically stifle future efforts to expose government, or corporate, misdeeds. Openness would suffer. (The need to keep some things secret should be obvious. Alas, it isn’t as obvious as it should be!) Governments and corporations need to keep secrets; the journalist has a duty to ferret them out. If they’re scandalous enough, they should be published. The key here is the judgement call; Wikileaks didn’t make any judgement call; instead they tried to weasel out of any responsibility by asking the US which cables should be withheld. Wikileaks’ torpid responsibility is much less than it seems.
    (Another interesting conversation would be about citizen journalism and Wikileaks. Unfortunately Mr Assange conflates his irresponsibility with responsible journalism, thereby ending that conversation before it gets started.)
    We should own our words and opinions, but then I think about the Federalist Papers – they were written under pseudonyms. There’s a compelling case to be made either way: allowing anonymous comment, or disallowing it. I’ve just been involved in a couple of recent conversations with individuals who are so loath to own their words, they use numerous pseudonyms; it was difficult to tell with whom I was conversing! The conversations also took very surreal turns, and my opponents simply got mad at me; they made little effort to defend their own, stated, views. With their anonymity, they could do get mad with impunity; indeed, it seemed like their default reaction: idea challenged? Get mad at the challenger. That sort of thing is changing how we perceive anonymous conversation; Wikileaks is about a different subject: the right of governments to not divulge everything in its day to day business. That the two topics have a common link in accountability is fascinating. I merely hope that Congress, and other bodies, will be circumspect in how they address that problem. Unfortunately the overblown rhetoric we’ve seen coming from Congress has me a little worried that the government, especially the Republicans, will gallop to an Official Secrets Act. Which won’t change a thing, but will silence investigative journalism.

  8. @Alex – thank you for stopping by.
    @Gabriele – indeed, to put it with Shakespeare, it’s a tangled web we weave.
    @Carolyn Ann – lots of good food for thought in your comment. Thank you for the link to the anonymous commentary NYT article. “The knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior” indeed, shining a big spot light on a person does help keep things civil. And I would love for journalism to become more investigative again…

  9. Hi Valeria,
    I think most words should fall like snow on water (diplomatic or otherwise).
    We all now live under the sword of assange. Like Damocles who sat in Syracuse’s thrown only to realise that a sword, hovered above suspended only by a horses hair, wikileaks reminds us that our words now hang above us by optic fibre. Ever weakening by an insatiable fetish for news and transparency.
    Damocles quickly returned to a poorer but safer life when he realised what it meant to be king. I wonder if we’ll do the same when we realise what it means to be connected.
    By the way, on Alan Webber’s comments
    “dont say or do something you wouldnt want published… And anyway, isnt journalism supposed to investigate what those same instituitions are really doing?”
    First, how is wikileaks( a misnomer ) journalism? It appear selective data scraping.
    Second, “don’t say something you wouldn’t want published”. How is this helpful to a species that gossips, gets things wrong, lies, boasts, forgets, gets angry etc etc ? The irony in the statement is superb.
    I’m guessing we’ve evolved to forget quickly and to record only a handful of words spoken for very good reason.
    Peter

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