What WikiLeaks is About (Hint: It’s Not About Exposing Individual Wrongdoing)

2 12 2010

It seems my previous post may have been made in haste. After reading this enlightening post on Zunguzungu about Julian Assange’s philosophy, it’s now clear that his intention isn’t just to provide a medium by which whistleblowers can expose individual cases of wrongdoing, he’s instead attempting to alter the communication and secrecy landscape entirely, thus eroding the very possibility of what he calls ‘conspiracy’.

Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite not merely for preferment or favor within the regime but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

His idea is to basically remove the capability of ‘conspirators’ to be able to communicate effectively and in secret, thus removing their ability to conspire. The leaks also turn the organisation on itself and fosters paranoia, thus further reducing its ability to ‘conspire’.

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

This is a kind of assymetric information war that could only be fought in the internet age. And, in a way, it was probably inevitable – remember Stuart Brand’s “information wants to be free”, meaning not that information ought to be made freely available, but that the cost of distribution is so low that it becomes harder and harder to keep it from moving around.

I find Assange’s essay compelling, but I still have concerns. They centre around trust:

How do we know we can trust Assange and WikiLeaks?

For the time being, I think we can. But the very lack of transparency in its own workings – by Assange’s own theory – make it ripe for descending into a conspiracy of its own.

Yet opening up WikiLeaks would likely cause it to stop functioning, as the leakers would suddenly be exposed, and the organisation itself would be vulnerable to being taken down, whether through its leaders being arrested or its servers disabled.

This suggests a paradox: in order for openness to thrive, there must be some restrictions on some information.

And I don’t believe there is any way to resolve this paradox satisfactorily.

That’s not to say this paradox is unique to this context; Hobbes faced the very same paradox when considering how to prevent people from descending into a war of all against all. His solution was an all-powerful sovereign state that has the power to force people to cooperate without defecting – to take a Prisoner’s Dilemma analogy.

But… how do the citizens know the sovereign won’t defect on them? I.e., how do they know the state won’t abuse its power and engage in some kind of conspiracy to further its own ends to the detriment of the people?

There is, to date, no perfect solution to this problem. The separation of powers, a free press and as much transparency as possible is the best we’ve come up with until now. And the very existence of WikiLeaks suggests that even this hasn’t sufficient to date.

Another concern is whether full transparency is always a good thing. I see it as being a sliding scale: more transparency means more bad acts are caught, but also more benign acts might also be inappropriately exposed (say, revealing a political leader is gay or atheist, causing a perfectly competent leader to be ousted for reasons irrelevant to their capability to perform their job).

Some things should remain private. Although too much privacy and secrecy means less benign acts are exposed, but also makes it easier for bad acts to occur unseen.

There’s no perfect solution to this problem. It’s a trade-off.

So, check and balances. Checks and balances. It’s the best we can do. And while WikiLeaks is putting itself forward – commendably, in my opinion – as a check on authoritarian and ‘conspiratorial’ power, it needs to be aware of the potential trap it’s digging for itself.

Seems we’re at a crossroads in how information is used, and the current state is unstable. It’ll have to settle into equilibrium at some point, and it’ll be interesting to see how it does.

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3 responses

2 12 2010
James Gray

Competition among “leaks” might help a little.

2 12 2010
Tom Rees

Yes, what we need is a “meta-wikileaks”! I see that Putin is hinting that wikileaks is being manipulated by US intelligence services for some unknown end.

20 12 2010
Gary Storne

The unknown end…. control of the internet??

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