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Wikileaks, Cablegate and the Transparent World We Now Live In

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, December 1 2010

Five quick comments about Wikileaks and Cablegate:

1. Let's posit that what Julian Assange is doing is "radical transparency," i.e. publishing everything he can get his hands on. He is, in fact, not doing that, though he is obviously publishing far more raw material than any prior journalistic effort. Given that the internet is a realm of abundance, not scarcity like the old ink-based and TV-time-based media, this is a feature, not a bug. Whether you like it or not, raw data dumps (in structured, searchable, mashable form) of previously private or secret information are now part of the media landscape. As Max Frankel of the New York Times just put it, "The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets."

2. Given that this kind of "radical transparency" is technologically feasible, like it or not, it is now a given of our times. Efforts to stop it will fail, just as efforts to stop file-sharing by killing Napster failed.

3. Calling Assange a "terrorist" (as Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Rep. Peter King and others have done) and seeking to have the Justice Department classify Wikileaks as a "foreign terrorist organization" are, themselves, highly dangerous efforts to intimidate free speech online, and should be opposed as such. Whether or not you think Assange is a nice person or a sex offender is irrelevant. Terrorist organizations blow other people up; to date, as the Pentagon has explicitly acknowledged, no one has been harmed as a result of Wikileaks. And even if someone somewhere might be harmed in some hypothetical future by the release of the State Department's cables, that is not a reason for prior restraint on the freedom of the press, which we are all now.

4. People who think that more transparency will lead to the hiding of secrets deeper in the bureaucracy, and that as a result we will know less, not more about the workings of government or the powerful have got their heads screwed on backward. By that logic, we should require less public disclosure of what the government does, not more. Why ask campaign contributors or lobbyists to disclose any of their activities? In fact, when people think what they're doing ~might~ be subject to public view, their behavior generally changes for the better. Thus the overall value of Cablegate--exposing a great deal of the world's sovereign powers to a harsh new level of public scrutiny, and warning them that more such scrutiny is always a possibility in the future--should, on balance, lead to better behavior.

5. That said, there is a danger rising both to internet freedom and open government here, but that is not because of Wikileaks. It is because people who are threatened by more transparency want to stop this trend before it is completely uncontrollable. Unfortunately for them, the genie is out of the bottle (and judging by the number of people who now own a camera- or video- or internet-enabled mobile phone, it's in the hands of billions). But that won't stop them from trying to impose regressive new controls on how we share information with each other, or even in trying to re-engineer the Internet protocols to let them snoop on more private communications.

Like it or not, this is now the world we live in.