Sunday, March 20, 2011

the method is transparency, the goal is justice

Technology Review | Perhaps the best way to conceive of WikiLeaks is like this: it is a stateless, distributed intelligence network, a reverse image of the U.S. National Security Agency, dedicated to publicizing secrets rather than acquiring them, unconstrained and answerable to a single man.

The future of WikiLeaks
If WikiLeaks is not a media organization, is it another example of the Internet overthrowing our settled habits? That question is more interesting. By this formulation, WikiLeaks is to the state and corporations what Napster was to music or Google is to media as a business.

Shakespeare, Lord Annan recalled in his war memoirs, gave to Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida the haunting phrase "There is a mystery ... in the soul of the state." "That mystery is the intelligence services," Annan explained. He was thinking of his service on the United Kingdom's Joint Intelligence Staff 70 years ago. But the modern state has many allied organizations besides the intelligence services, including the management of large corporations and banks, who partake in its mystery. Julian Assange, the disordered soul of WikiLeaks, wants to explode the soul of the state.

The modern state, with its monopoly on violence, is not like the music industry or the media. It is properly jealous of its secrets, and more powerful and able than Assange understands. It will bitterly resent an attack by a crypto-utopian on its ability to "think." Assange has declared himself the state's enemy, and he will, in all likelihood, be comprehensively destroyed. WikiLeaks will vanish.

Once imagined, however, the technology of WikiLeaks cannot be forgotten and can easily be imitated. Other organizations, less radically activist, will create secure drop boxes for anonymous leaking. Already, the disgruntled former WikiLeaks volunteer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has said he will create a less threatening platform called OpenLeaks. It will, he says, publish nothing but, instead, function as a pipeline where sources designate the media organization to which they wish to leak: "We want to be a neutral conduit. That's what's most politically sustainable." Still more leak platforms are sprouting, including GreenLeaks, which will publish "information of environmental significance"; Brussels Leaks, which will expose the European Union; and Rospil, which will uncover Russia's secrets.

Predictably, media organizations want to replicate WikiLeaks's secure drop box, too. Recently, Al Jazeera launched a "Transparency Unit," which encourages its audience to submit "all forms of content" for "editorial review and, if merited, online broadcast and transmission on our English and Arabic-language broadcasts." The first product came in January, when Al Jazeera published the "Palestine Papers," 11 years' worth of secret documents created by the Palestinian Authority, describing negotiations with the Israeli government. The impression that emerges from them is that the Israeli government is no longer interested in securing a Palestinian state: it is a scoop that could not have existed without the Transparency Unit's drop box. Now other publications are considering their own. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, is pondering how he can make it easier for sources to leak to his journalists.

WikiLeaks may not be with us for the long haul, but others will imitate its innovations, and they are likely to be more constrained and more responsible.