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What Wikileaks Means for "Open Government"

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 29 2010

Over on Twitter, the New Yorker's Nicholas Thompson wonders if Wikileaks' release of scores of U.S. State Department cables will "indirectly deal [a] blow to [the] cause of open government."

It's a good, smart question, of course. And one response that seems to make sense is that it might, but shouldn't necessarily. The Wikileaks document dump is a challenge to the idea that sometimes secrecy and privacy are reasonable concessions to the realities of how humans get things done, but in my experience there are even many people who work in the open government world who would find that an untenably extremist posistion to take. But it's somewhat irrelevant; there's a considerable body of information that by common agreement the public should have access to but doesn't, whether that's state and federal legal code or details on federal contracts or specifics on who the Federal Communication Commission offers telecom licesenses to. That information difficult to get to, or make sense of, often because of the logistics of where it's stored (offline, for example) or the format that it's in. You can look at that body of information as material that's been pre-negotiated to be public, but just isn't yet. That's a core aspect of "open government" that doesn't really seem to be implicated by the sort of endeavor that Julian Assange and Wikileaks has going on here.

That said, in the year 2010 the phrase open government in the U.S. has come to mean a great deal more, such as the White House reporting on which lobbyists visit which administration staffers, or the disclosure of who members of Congress are meeting with on a granular level. Does the American public have the right to that information? Is that right absolute? Is it balanced out by the fact that sometimes in order to get things done, it doesn't make sense for everyone who wants it to have real-time ominisence? In my humble opinion, those are questions that the open government movement, as it exists, hasn't done a particularly good job answering yet. But extremes can sometimes help to define a sensible middle. One might even hope that by choosing to go the "radical transparency" route, Wikileaks and in particular this latest release of decontexualized diplomatic cables might actually force those conversations to actually happen, which could in fact work out to strengthen the -- to borrow Nick's language -- "cause" of open government over the long run.

But that's just a guess. What do you think?