Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Small earthquake in the media: not many dead


Wikileaks took pole position in world headlines in November 2010, becoming an "overnight sensation" after several years under the radar.  Was it, as the Guardian claimed "the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet"? Is Naomi Wolf right about the ambivalence of US media in their defence of journalists revealing truth?

As the story was breaking, I was travelling between the Middle East, Asia and New Zealand. I followed the story with an obsession that was fed across timezones and political boundaries - accessing information sources without borders. The immediacy of the internet media pushed the circulation of ideas to hyperspeed: Live tweeting from the court hearing in London, commentary flaming in media blogs, and a palpable sense of excitement as the "war" escalated. The DDoS attacks on Wikileaks and the attacks by Anonymous on suppliers who withdrew their services, had all the characteristics of early skirmishes. As Julian Assange remarked sardonically "We now know that Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and others are instruments of US foreign policy. It's not something we knew before".  And the continuing leaks around his court case include the publication of his defense. The events have been great theatre, and rich in irony.

At the same time, Wikileaks has very quickly become part of the journalism landscape. Although only 3,500 of the 251,287 cables have been published, news stories are now regularly accompanied by commentary from Wikileaks - it has become another source of information. 

After the obligatory 15 minutes of fame, has the world changed?

In my view, it has. Many people that I respect have already published their views; here I contribute why I think so.

Before answering, I need to separate the Wikileaks effect from its founder - Julian Assange.  I have no direct knowledge of him, or what caused him to pursue his quest with a clear understanding of his goal and the associated dangers,  but I enjoyed reading Aaron Bady's insights into Julian the man.  Here I look at the structural implications for a 21st century fourth estate.

Since the globalisation of capital in the 1970s, there has been an imbalance between power and accountability. Neo-liberal economic ideology, which should have ended with the 2008 financial crisis, amazingly led to rehabilitation of the very people who got us into this mess, and the perpetuation of the obscene gap between the rich and poor. 

Rudolf Elmer recently used Wikileaks to release financial details of Swiss bank account holders - an indication that Wikileaks is not just a channel for US government leaks. Wikileaks targets power and wealth, without fear or favour, and is a necessary counterbalance to the transnational resources available to power and wealth. Look at the organisations that have been held to account.

Power and wealth seeks privacy and secrecy, and abhors public scrutiny.  Social institutions have evolved, building on the hard work of brave and ethical leaders, to create controls which balance the exercise of power. We look aghast at the excesses of dictators in developing countries who accumulate and hide wealth while their people live in poverty.  However in western democracies, power and wealth have found ways to avoid examination by the traditional fourth estate, which is struggling for survival, recycling press releases from governments and corporations alongside celebrity gossip and reality shows.

Laws and government systems seek to balance the interests of the individual with the interests of the community. Globalisation has removed capital from the control of these laws, and a globalised media has not yet emerged to hold power and wealth to account. Power and wealth take advantage of this opportunity to avoid the oversight of national watchdogs, and use professional advisors, transnational wealth management and offshore funds to minimise their contribution to the collective interest. 

Wikileaks has been described as the first stateless news organisation, operating as a networked organisation, and not subject to the control of any single government.  Power and wealth have understood the value of being stateless; it has probably always been this way, but we thought that good governments controlled abuses. This faith has dissolved as the secrecy is lifted, and behind the veil we see how the elite, including our political leaders, live. The Cayman Islands has the fifth largest banking asset base on the planet (277 banks holding US$2 trillion of deposits in a country with a population of 60,000). Holding power and wealth to account, whether it is through the US embassy cables or the details of offshore wealth held in Swiss banks accounts, is an important task that needs to operate on a global basis in the 21st century.

After the initial publication of the first 191 cables on 28 November 2010, the Wikileaks web site experienced a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack; in the following week, a range of suppliers withdrew from providing their services to Wikileaks including Paypal, MasterCard and Visa payment services, PostFinance in Switzerland who closed the Wikileaks bank account, Tableau data visualization, EveryDNS domain services, and Amazon hosting services. This line-up indicates the significance of the challenge to the status quo.

The ability of the internet to hold power to account has been praised in western media when applied in countries like China, North Korea, much of the Middle East and a large part of Africa.  The statement by Hilary Clinton in January 2010 seemed to define the US policy in support of "Internet freedom .. {giving} people access to knowledge", but the policy turned out to be fungible when the power of the internet was applied to US government activities. 

What we have found is that technology is value neutral, and the internet can apply scrutiny to all sources of power and wealth, irrespective of ideology.  Operating with integrity and openness is the only way to the moral high ground.

Power and wealth are now facing an equal and opposite force of a different nature - the agility and resilience of the internet. 
  • "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it" - John Gilmore's famous quip 
  • A mirror of the Wikileaks Cablegate site was seeded as a torrent 20 minutes after its availability was published on Twitter. 
This speed and agility is beyond the ability of any government to control: the Chinese government's Green Dam Youth Escort project was not successful, and currently technology is enabling Egyptians to carry on texting and tweeting during anti-government protests, circumventing the country's internet shutdown.


Even if Wikileaks has a short life, the world of power and wealth has been changed forever, in the same way that Napster deconstructed the music business. Creating a place to "help you safely get the truth out" is an essential part of creating a more balanced world, now that individual governments can no longer do so. The fact that there is such a place will change the behaviours of those holding power and wealth.

From Napster to Pirate Bay, from Wikileaks to Openleaks, the genie is out of the bottle.  Does government really want to start another unwinnable war against an abstract noun?

Or as the Guardian put it (before the separation):

Politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet.


Places to go to find out more

Wikirebels - a must-watch documentary from STV. Some soundbites:
  • "A difference can be made bottom up"
  • "Information does not respect borders"
  • "Democracy without transparency is not democracy, it's just an empty word"
  • "By and large Wikileaks is a force for the good. Wikileaks in very very powerful  ... one has to be cautious about anything that is very powerful"
You see it's not really about Wikileaks. .. every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance; over time, the artificial abundance will win.

The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us "You went after Wikileaks domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don't like the site. If that's the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.

Society is made up of competing goods that can't be resolved in any perfect way - freedom vs. liberty, state secrets vs. citizen oversight

In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems.

Governments will have to learn what the music and film industries have been forced to learn already, that it's easy to copy and publish digital files

In 1958 a young Rupert Murdoch, then owner and editor of Adelaide's The News, wrote: "In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win."

4 comments:

  1. Mark Pesce has made a compelling argument as to why the resilience of the Internet is under threat and identified the design principles that are required to protect it:

    http://blog.futurestreetconsulting.com/2011/01/28/smoke-signals/

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  2. Couldn't agree more. Let's hope enough light shines on secret transnational agreements like TPPA so that they can be discussed in the open.

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  3. The immediacy of the internet media pushed the circulation of ideas to hyperspeed: Live tweeting from the court hearing in London, commentary flaming in media blogs, and a palpable sense of excitement as the "war" escalated.

    Media Monitoring

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete