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Micah Sifry

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WikiLeaks, Assange, and Why There's No Turning Back (Exclusive Excerpt)

Posted: 02/ 9/11 09:25 AM ET

Adapted from my new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, which ORBooks is publishing this month in the United States and is available on their website. It is also being published in Great Britain by the Yale University Press UK. Sifry is the co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and editor of its blog, techPresident.com.

Back in the fall of 2009, getting hold of Julian Assange wasn't easy. The Australian founder of WikiLeaks seemed to be constantly on the move, and his email habits were unpredictable. My colleague Andrew Rasiej and I had invited him to speak at the inaugural European gathering of our Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) conference in Barcelona that November. "Micah, great!" he wrote in late October, accepting the invitation. "Currently in Laos. Denmark 18th Nov-ish. Iceland not long after. Can you send me all necessary details?"

I wrote back right away, but a series of follow-up emails to his Sunshinepress.org account failed to get a response. The conference was just a few weeks away and we weren't sure if one of our keynote speakers was really coming. In desperation, I went online to the WikiLeaks.org website and clicked on "live chat." Within moments another screen opened, and I was given an anonymous user account name. I typed hello, and someone responded, telling me his name was "Daniel." I started to explain who I was, and Daniel suggested opening a private one-on-one chat to continue the conversation. No, Julian wasn't available right now, he told me, but he promised to relay my messages to him.

He did, because two weeks later, Assange and his trusted colleague Daniel (who then went by the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, but has since broken with WikiLeaks to launch OpenLeaks, and is now known by his real name, Daniel Domscheit-Berg) were with us at the hypermodern Torre Agbar building in Barcelona, where some 350 people from all over Europe had come to PdF to talk about how technology was changing politics. The speakers included the top online organizers of the Barack Obama presidential campaign of 2008; senior tech advisers to the English, French, Spanish, German, and Norwegian governments; leaders from companies like Google, Facebook, and Meetup; and a polyglot mix of political bloggers, social media consultants, e-democracy innovators, human rights activists, and transparency advocates. But everyone seemed slightly awed by Assange and Domscheit-Berg, who were already known then among the digerati for what they had achieved with WikiLeaks.

On stage in Barcelona for the final plenary at the forum, Assange didn't talk much about how the Internet and new communications technologies made WikiLeaks' work possible. Instead, he called on Western journalists and transparency activists to do more to keep governments and business honest.
"A friend of mine in the United States, Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers, uses a phrase that I've become fond of," he said, leaning into the microphone for emphasis. "'Courage is contagious,' that is, when someone engages in a courageous act and shows other people that that act wasn't an act of martyrdom, rather that it was an intelligently designed act, it encourages other people to follow him."

Assange went on to argue that such courage was needed not just in the developing world, but also in the advanced countries of Europe, using words that in retrospect seem eerily prophetic.
Why aren't more journalists being arrested in Europe? Why aren't more transparency activists being arrested in Europe? It's not because Europe has no problems. It's not because Europe is a gentle society . . . Europe is involved in big geopolitical games internally, it's overrun with Russian oligarchs, there are extreme problems in Europe . . . . Where is the civil courage amongst civil society in Europe? I see some of it, but I think there should be more . . . .I encourage you to not become martyrs, but instead to intelligently understand how far you can push government into doing something that is just, by exposing injustice.

Half a year later, Assange was no longer a relatively obscure Australian transparency activist. "CollateralMurder.com"--WikiLeaks' publication at of a decrypted American military video showing two U.S. Apache helicopter gunships firing on and killing about a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists--had vaulted him onto the global stage. And with our annual New York PdF conference around the corner in June, Andrew and I thought we had pulled off a coup: the first-ever face-to-face appearance of Assange with his hero Ellsberg, on stage together to talk about how the Internet was changing the power of whistleblowers.

But on June 1st, literally two days before the conference was to start, Assange wrote us to say that he couldn't come to New York for his encounter with Ellsberg. His email read: "I have received urgent advice that it is unsafe for me to travel to the U.S. and am cancelling all my plans there. . . . I am not happy, but this is what happens when a country stops following the rule of law. Sorry I don't have more notice. . . ." Something had changed. After all, Assange had been in the United States just weeks earlier for the Collateral Murder press tour. But now he was not willing to risk another visit.

We ended up conducting a virtual meeting on the PdF stage in New York, with Ellsberg seated next to me and Assange plugged in via Skype video from Australia, his head projected above us like some kind of strange Big Brother image. We had some trouble with the connection, which made our dialogue somewhat stilted. But one back-and-forth with Assange stands out. I had asked him if he thought the current crackdown on whistle-blowers in the United States, where several cases are under way for what is a very rarely prosecuted crime, might be related to the existence of WikiLeaks.

He answered, "I'm not sure it's us. All our sources have not been exposed. Certainly none have been publicly exposed." (Given the timing of Assange's remarks, his careful clarification suggests he knew something might be up with his biggest source.) Having said that, he made a pitch for more sources to come forward. "Remember, almost no one gets caught. We're talking about five prosecutions in a country of three hundred million. Almost everyone who leaks material is successful. . . . It's much safer than walking across the street."

And yet, Assange would not travel to America. It is probably not a coincidence that right around this time, at the end of May, Private Bradley Manning was arrested at his U.S. Army base east of Baghdad, on suspicion of having given classified military documents and videos, along with hundreds of thousands of secret State Department cables, to WikiLeaks. Wired's story breaking the news on Manning's arrest came out on June 6th. The next day, I wrote Assange to thank him for making the extra effort to keep his virtual date with Ellsberg. He responded in kind, adding, "I trust the reasons for my absence are now clear."

With the current volley of books coming out right now about Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and the ins-and-outs of his relations with various major news organizations, there's a danger that we're going to miss the bigger story of what WikiLeaks really represents. In the last few years, a wide array of small-d democracy and transparency activists have been hard at work using new tools and methods to open up powerful institutions and make them more accountable. WikiLeaks is just one piece of that larger movement. Were Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to somehow disappear tomorrow--and I don't doubt that many powerful people wish that could somehow happen--nothing much would have changed.

An old way of doing things is dying; a new one is being born. And we need more midwives.
What is new is our ability to individually and together connect with greater ease than at any time in human history. As a result, information flows more freely into the public arena, powered by seemingly unstoppable networks of people around the world cooperating to share vital data and prevent its suppression. Old institutions and incumbent powers are inexorably coming to terms with this new reality. The "Age of Transparency" is here: not because one transnational online network dedicated to open information and whistle-blowing named WikiLeaks exists, but because the knowledge of how to build and maintain such networks is now widespread.

It both helps and hurts that we are living in a time of radical uncertainty about the "official" version of the truth. All kinds of "authoritative" claims made by leading public figures in recent years have turned out to be little more than thin air. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Deregulation of Wall Street didn't make the financial marketplace more rational. The American housing market turned out to be built on sand. The extent of Federal Reserve subsidies to the financial sector during the 2008-09 market collapse turned out to be much larger than was originally disclosed. The dikes of New Orleans weren't built to withstand a major hurricane. The Catholic Church child-molestation scandals turned out to be more widespread than church officials claimed. The oil wells in the Gulf weren't safe as promised and ratified by government inspectors. (And the claim that no one imagined that any of these things could go wrong and no one tried to warn us in advance? Also false.)

Even on smaller issues, the "authorities" often turn out to be the last to know what is actually going on, especially now that we all use the real-time web to share what we know as events unfold. Nothing less than absolute transparency for powerful actors seems to be the remedy to this state of affairs, the only way to restore trust in public institutions. And yet we also know we cannot eliminate all secrets, nor live in a world where privacy and confidentiality no longer exist.
WikiLeaks is just one piece of a much larger continuum of changes in how the people and the powerful relate to each other in this new time--changes that are fundamentally healthy for the growth and strength of an open society. Secrecy and the hoarding of information are ending; openness and the sharing of information are coming.

As I write these words, we seem to have reached a hinge moment in that cleansing process, which now stretches from the secret ledgers of the Federal Reserve and the hidden dealings of the U.S. State Department to the streets of the Middle East. America's leaders, some of them advocates for greater transparency in government at home and abroad, seem shocked that an outside force is doing to them what they have long called on democracy activists in other countries to do to their governments. Other political figures haven't even tried to balance open government with their knee-jerk attacks on WikiLeaks and calls for Assange's imprisonment or assassination. Dangerous legal precedents may soon be created that undermine the long-standing freedom of the press to report the truth.

American technology companies seem mostly cowed by the furious blasts emanating from Washington and uncertain of their own commitment to defend free speech online. While some tech visionaries are speaking out, others have been disturbingly quiet about the willingness of large chunks of their industry to cave in so quickly to political pressure. And American democracy activists seem divided between those who want to fight with extralegal methods like distributed-denial-of-service attacks to defend the wide-open web, those who fear engendering an anti-WikiLeaks backlash (or distrust Assange personally and fear being tied to his mast), and those like me who are resolutely anti-anti-WikiLeaks, and worry that the "cure" to WikiLeaks' independence will be worse than the disease.

But here's why the anti-WikiLeaks backlash is futile. The transparency movement is not going away.

Today, the wall between powerful elected officials and the people they want to represent has started to come down. In America, political campaigns at every level make strenuous efforts to engage in direct and open dialogue with their supporters. They hold special conference calls for political bloggers, they do live chats on Facebook, they respond to direct questions on Twitter, and they engage in video question-and-answer forums on YouTube. Much of this interactivity is aimed at showing that the candidate is "listening to the public" in the same way that a photo-op supposedly shows that a candidate cares about some issue, but sometimes they even give supporters tools to organize themselves on behalf of the campaign and invite them to help shape their agenda. This behavior has become so commonplace in politics that we've forgotten how big a cultural shift it represents.

The change isn't only coming from campaigns and other organizations or figures opening themselves up from the top down. It's also being created from the bottom up, as we literally carry in our pockets and on our laps the ability to connect and collaborate directly with each other, without requiring permission from the people formerly known as the authorities. And when you combine connectivity with transparency--the ability for more people to see, share, and shape what is going on around them--the result is a huge increase in social energy, which is being channeled in all kinds of directions.

Transparency is the fuel; connectivity is the engine; a sense of oneself as a more effective participant in the democratic process (personal democracy, if you will) is the journey. What is emerging was a greatly expanded notion of the role of citizen not just as a passive consumer of political information and occasional voter, but as an active player, monitoring what government and politicians were doing, demanding a seat at the table and a view of the proceedings, sharing self-generated news of what was important, and participating in problem solving.

The fundamental change powering this networked age of politics is the shift from scarcity to abundance. Thanks to the rapid evolution of computer processing power, all kinds of goods that were once expensive to produce have become cheap. Beyond the declining price of a personal computer or a backup drive, elemental changes in the economics of information, connectivity, and time have occurred.

Social sharing of data--be it MP3 files or once-secret government documents--is out of anyone's control once the material is in digital form. And anyone who wants to form an association of like-minded souls can do so in seconds, using search tools, social networks, or just plain old email. And while there is still a limit to how many genuine connections one individual can have with others, there is no inherent limit to the number of connections that a community may create laterally. A "one-to-many" email list or social following may look valuable, but no one person can have millions of personal relationships. Thus, while leaders and celebrities remain important, their stars are dimming, as community hubs, forums, and aggregators that knit together thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people are steadily growing. Finally, as the price of memory and disk space has continued to collapse, our ability to share time-intensive and content-rich resources has exploded. While old media like television, radio, and print have inherent physical limits on how much space or time than can give to any subject, on the Internet there are no such limits. The sound bite can be replaced with a sound blast, and if your content is compelling, people will share it for you.

The explosion of capacity means that old practices of hoarding or hiding information, done sometimes for pragmatic reasons (it was too costly to make lots of copies) and other times to maintain a position of privilege, now seem like artificial barriers to access. In this new context, a political campaign that refuses to engage supporters in an interactive manner is now seen as overly controlling. A legislature that makes public documents available solely by printing them in binders and making people come to a basement office in the Capitol, rather than posting them online in searchable, downloadable form, is seen as being ridiculously secretive. Charging exorbitant fees to access public information, or preventing people from contributing their own knowledge, is seen as hopelessly behind the times. And a government body that monopolizes control of public data not only risks undermining trust in its actions. It also stands to lose out in the burgeoning new world of participatory democracy known as "we-government," where citizens are using connective technologies and public data to create whole new ways of identifying and solving civic problems.

WikiLeaks has to be understood in this context. Let's posit that what Julian Assange is doing is "radical transparency," i.e., publishing everything he can get his hands on. He has not, in fact, been doing that, though he is obviously publishing a great deal of raw material. Given that the Internet is a realm of abundance--not scarcity like the old ink-based and airtime-based media--this is a feature, not a bug. Raw data dumps of previously private or secret information are now part of the media landscape. As Max Frankel, former executive editor of The New York Times, recently put it, "The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets."

Security expert Bruce Schneier makes a similar point. "Secrets are only as secure as the least trusted person who knows them," he wrote on his blog a few weeks after Cablegate started. "The more people who know a secret, the more likelyit is to be made public." Somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 military and diplomatic personnel had access to the SIPRNet system that Manning tapped. The government actually doesn't know precisely how many people overall have security clearances to access classified information. Based on reporting from the Government Accountability Office, Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert, estimates the number is 2.5 million people. Given that WikiLeaks' 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.

It should go without saying that transparency does not mean exposing everyone's secrets to public view. But given how much our privacy is already being eroded, not just by government but also by private corporations, it's an understandable concern. It is striking to see how often people react to the news about WikiLeaks by asking how they could possibly do their jobs if every confidential conversation or negotiation were required to be public. But the transparency movement isn't aimed at exposing the doings of ordinary people to intense scrutiny, and the kind of network effects that occur around instances of information censorship generally don't happen around spreading someone's shopping list.

As Julian Assange argued as recently as the middle of January 2011, "Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has. The more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency. Conversely, the weaker one is, the more danger there is in being transparent." In other words, if information is power, then what the transparency movement is trying to do is correct an asymmetric power relationship.
This can be a messy process, and both the holders and the sharers of previously secret or hidden information need to act with care. I have a vivid memory of being accosted at some organization's annual dinner by the chief of staff of a liberal Member of Congress furious that her personal financial disclosure statement, which not only listed her salary but her bank and IRA account records and home address, had been put online at a site called Legistorm. Even though these disclosures had always been "public" in the sense of being available for viewing in a basement office in the Capitol, this felt different to her. Redaction of private details that have no reason to be in public view is a vital part of responsible transparency efforts.

But it is critical to recognize that transparency is a necessary corrective to excessive government power. What leading U.S. transparency organizations like the Sunlight Foundation (where I am a senior advisor) are pressing for is not the power to be Big Brother, watching everyone from above, but rather a flock of Little Sisters, watching government from below. All that the WikiLeaks phenomenon adds to that effort is the ability to share information beyond the control of any one government's laws limiting that effort.

Micah L. Sifry

Speaking at a January 24th PdF symposium on WikiLeaks and internet freedom, Clay Shirky made yet another of his always-fresh observations. After World War II, he told the audience, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand formed a secret pact building on their cooperation during the war in sharing intelligence gathered from eavesdropping. Since each country's intelligence service was forbidden by local law to spy on its own citizens, but nothing prevented each service from spying on other countries, the five members of what is known as UKUSA agreed to share information on each other's citizens, essentially going around their own local laws. To Shirky, what WikiLeaks represents is the parallel formation of a civic intelligence network, one that has also found a way to route around the laws of any one state. And like it or not, this is fundamentally disruptive to the old balance of power politics. Dispersed networks and powerful encryption technologies are taking away some of the long-held advantages that state actors have had over their subjects.

The bottom line: If you are a private citizen and you want to stay that way, start by not sharing so much of yourself online. Read the "terms of service" that come with all the free online services that everyone is using, and decide if you are comfortable with the possibility that your information may be sold to advertisers, or given to a policeman with a warrant but without your knowledge, or that the privacy settings that you are relying on may be changed without notice. But also understand that the more you do in the public arena, including such basic civic acts as signing a ballot petition or making a campaign donation or getting a government contract, the more information will be asked of and shared about you. And if you are one of the few to whom much power has been given, much more transparency is to be expected.

 

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