Wikis, leaks and the Web today: a collision of confidence and security
In January this year, US Secretary of State Clinton delivered a thoughtful, cogent response to the threat posed by China's clampdown on their citizen's access to the Web and harassment of global Internet firms like Google in their efforts to better distribute information. Later the speech was published in Foreign Affairs, with the full weight of her argument neatly hinging upon a passage near the heart of the piece:
Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks. They have expunged words, names and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.
This is sharp stuff, and entirely true and well-documented. States like Iran, India, Pakistan, and others actively monitor and block access to online information. Their government agents exploit analysis of internet traffic with immediate effect. Citizen journalism is blotted out; incriminating videos removed; protest quickly and summarily shut down at the source.
The piece then ends: "I hope that refusal to support politically-motivated censorship will become a trademark characteristic of American technology ... it should be part of our national brand ... we are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance."
As a 21st century defence of freedom of expression and thought, it was a solid, well-articulated position. Governments have no moral right to deny people access to information for purposes of political expediency or to avoid embarrassment. And US companies should not be party to such oppression of opinion or non-violent protest. Recall that old summation of Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The heady sort of ideal that revolutionaries go on to found great republics upon.
Flash-forward six months, however, and alas. It was no longer the oppressive governments of China or Iran who were under the spotlight. It was the treatment of Iraqi citizens, or Afghani farmers. And the technology in question was no longer the 'Great Firewall of China' but the public-key encrypted, BitTorrent-supported, donation- funded site WikiLeaks. And most significantly, the focus was not the treatment of our competitors security problems, but our own. Suddenly this past summer, the channel began to change. Abruptly, the US administration announced it wanted to update US surveillance laws and augment their powers, not challenge them overseas. And now US companies were petitioned to be 'good corporate citizens' in this effort, not to rail against them needlessly.
And then two weeks past, the diplomatic cables came out. A lone private, nestled in a cubicle deep in the Pentagon, motivated by little more than the youthful belief in transparency, haunted by a sense of discomfort at US foreign policy, armed with only his security clearance and some blank Lady Gaga discs, lifted the lid of Pandora's Box. And globally, governments have been playing defence every day since then. That the US Department of Defence had seen fit to give a file clerk (and thousands of other junior employees) unfettered access to this material did not seem a detail worthy of note. That one employee could remove, over the course of months, hundreds of thousands of military field reports and diplomatic dispatches on a 99-cent electronic medium from one of the world's highest security building? Also a small detail. The wagons of the state began to circle - as the leak was branded espionage, treason, sedition, even information terrorism.
Let's be clear what this is largely about. If there is one thing governments dislike, it is competition. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realms of diplomacy and intelligence. It is the business of government in these domains to control information, compartmentalize it, spin it and re-distribute it as best befits the policy of the day. WikiLeaks - and a growing constellation of other sites like it - represent a direct, grassroots challenge to that power. Worse still, in the grand global marketplace of diplomacy, secrets are very much like currency. Information gotten at great trouble and expense is coveted; it's the stock and trade. Never mind such quaint notions of a military-industrial complex. To quote Rick Moody, it's not so much a "complex" anymore, as pretty much the whole shebang.
Recall Max Weber
, father of the sociology of government, from his Wirtschaft und Gese, llschaft (1920):
Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret ... it hides its knowledge and action from criticism ... the concept of the 'official secret' is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude ... In facing a parliament, the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or from interest groups ... Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament-at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy's interests.
It's as true today as it was a century ago. Recall the knots our Parliament twisted itself in to examine the sponsorship scandal in Quebec. Or the Mulroney-Schrieber imbroglio. Or the Afghan detainee affair. The representatives of the public ask to see. The desks of the government go silent.
So to return to the current crisis, we have a choice. We can be distracted by the pettiness of individual reports. We can express mock-astonishment at what a troubled superpower will ask of its emissaries in the midst to two wars going badly. We can mock both the messengers - Private Manning and Julian Assange - or the media - the new media struggling with new rules, old media painfully trying to stay current. We can even scoff at the world's officials, brooms out, rugs up.
Or we can see the cable gate affair for what is very likely is. That encryption is a powerful tool. That distributed mirror-hosting is lighting fast. That torrents move information quickly, efficiently, anonymously and without mediation. That micro-payment systems allow niche fund-raising and ground-up support that is tough to beat. That crowd sourcing now has visualization and data mining tools from the open source movement that are just as powerful as any corporate product. That open data, open government, and a privacy and information access process that actually works, are not ideas that are likely to vanish away any time soon.
And finally, one last thought. That maybe, just possibly, the covert collection and control of information - two cornerstones of the great rationalist bureaucracies of the 19th and 20th centuries - may be in for a very serious drubbing this century, starting now.