Monday, November 29, 2010

The World After WikiLeaks


The recent leaks from the website WikiLeaks have been pretty big and pretty far-reaching in their scope. The site has made strides to change the way governments think about transparency. But i think it's worth asking: is this an unqualifiedly good thing? This isn't going to be a full-on essay or anything, I just think it's important to ask a few questions about this whole WikiLeaks thing.

Some background first. WikiLeaks is essentially a place where would-be leakers from all over the world can make their leaks available. It provides a forum for people with sensitive information that they think the public should know to make that information available to the public anonymously. Now, obviously this anonymity isn't going to last in some cases, but it does encourage otherwise hidden documents to make their way to the public.

The site made their biggest headlines yet when they leaked a few waves of United States military documents portraying the US's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in a somewhat poor light, including footage of US military accidentally firing on civilian reporters. And just this week, the site leaked a giant cache of diplomatic cables. The big accomplishment wasn't leaking the information; it was making the information a headline. In other words, most of it was stuff that was already publicly known or could be inferred from available sources. WikiLeaks just offered a platform for organizing and sharing this information with the news and the public.

So the role of the site in war diaries case was mostly one of a journalistic nature: the information was there, and the site just provided an organized way to source that information. In that sense, WikiLeaks is a way to facilitate transparency and accountability for organizations like, in that case, the US military or, in the most recent case, the US's international diplomacy. We haven't gotten to a point where the site is leaking actually dangerous top-secret information, but we've presumably created a world that is comfortable with that happening in the future.

That brings us to the question I wanted to ask. What kind of world is the WikiLeaks mentality leaving in its wake? Should governments and militaries be subject to the same kind of strategic transparency drops that happen to, say, Enron? It's obviously good to encourage transparency, but it's kind of a universal principle that a certain degree of information-privacy is very important.

It sort of links into the debate over privacy on social networking sites, such as Facebook or, more importantly, Google. These sites have this transparency agenda for the people that join the network, because they believe that more information surrendered to the company translates directly into a better user experience. Google has, in fact, made this a cornerstone of their business model: you let our robots skim your email for information, and the ads on your inbox better match the things you like. Or, even more usefully, on sites like Amazon.com, we retain information about what products you like and look at, and we in turn deliver suggestions for things you will also like.

On a larger scale, you've also got the whole world of proprietary business information, like patents and trade secrets. A patent is a way of trading disclosure for exclusive use, and a trade secret is a way of preventing disclosure to retain exclusive use. They illustrate two models for balancing privacy and transparency, but the balance is in favor of transparency: you get more government protection if you disclose more.

More transparency = better user experience: that's basically WikiLeaks's philosophy as well. WikiLeaks represents a force for a policy change, and they've decided that they favor a patents-like, Google-like approach to information policy. The mission of WikiLeaks is to make the most information possible available, and in exchange, the government and the news media can respond to that information with explanations and publicity materials and news stories, etc. More transparency is better for the system.

And I basically agree with that. But I also think it's dangerous to inflict dramatic policy changes on functional structures that rely on the older policy. We saw what happened to basically all of the record store companies when the apparent policy change happened in the public (this policy changed because of a technological development, which is how these things usually DO happen). And record companies dying or changing to harness policy changes to make better money (the iTunes store, Radiohead's pay-what-you-want model, etc.) is obviously a good thing.

But do we want the US military to have to adjust so dramatically so quickly? Do we want delicate international relationships to have to adjust to new policies overnight, risking some serious upheavals not that different to what happened to Virgin Megastore? Is the benefit of revealing the nuclear potential of a foreign nation worth the risk of them deciding it's time to use it?

Again, I want to stress that I think the policy shift WikiLeaks represents and is fighting for is a beneficial one. But the volatility that a dramatic policy shift represents can bring down very big infrastructures. It's dangerous when these infrastructures are military organizations or governments.

So I guess the short version of my question is this: given that transparency is almost always the right policy, is the WikiLeaks method of changing transparency policy an overall beneficial one? Is it worth the risk?

(Photo: AFP. It's Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, holding a paper talking about his handiwork.)