Dave Eaves has a thoughtful reply to my wikileaks piece up on his site. As usual, he gets at some of the meta questions surrounding this topic. While we would usually have this convo over a long drunken dinner, below are a few points in response.
First, I 100% agree with Dave that the institutions of the 20th century were built for a different social, economic and political model, and need to be reformed. One of these reforms will need to be far more transparency. More open data is part of this greater transparency. So yes, him and I are both incrementalists.
Let’s be clear about what Assange wants though. He wants to bring down the system – in it’s entirety. Just look at the zunguzungu piece: “Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity.” Ah yes, the true sign of a false prophet – if only we know everything, then we will reach purity. This is Maoist in it’s true sense. Cleans the world of politics, then politics will be pure. Demagogic absolutism at it’s core.
Second, and related, Assange is supposedly sitting on a huge data dump of a US bank. While this is likely a database of emails amongst managers and executives, what would those that are heralding this new world of absolute transparency say if he releases the financial information of every client of this bank. If his goal is to bring down the corrupt western capitalist system, why would he not release data that would bring the world economy to a standstill? And if he does, what will the reaction be from those that view wikileaks as a relatively harmless, though inconvenient for the powers that be, truthsayer?
Third, on Rosen’s video, far from brilliant, I actually think he gets his two core points wrong (maybe it’s the Dewars). Yes the role of press as watchdog has been degraded, but this is a bit of an old story. If anything though, wikileaks has increased the role of the press. Assange has 250,000 cables, and what does he do? Instead of releasing them all on say, a wiki, and letting the wisdom of the crowds sort it out, he gives 5 old media companies privileged secret access to the data for several weeks before the dump. As such, it is the NYT, the Guardian and Der Speigel which are the primary filters through which we see the cables. Far from their death-nail, wikileaks is the best thing to happen to the mainstream media in a decade.
Related, the second thing Rosen gets wrong is the reason leakers go to wikileaks rather than the traditional Bernteinian press. He seems to imply that they trust wikileaks to do better things with the data. That the press, having lost its watchdog role, is no longer worthy of a leakers’ intel. But maybe one simply leaks to wikileaks because wikileaks has a better guarantee of anonymity and is way easier? Imagine you are a junior officer in the US military sitting on a database you want to leak. You could try to contact someone at the Washington Post via smoke signal, meet them in parking garages late at night, and hope that their J-School ethics course had enough of an impact that when they are thrown in jail by the US government they will not divulge you as a source. Or, you could go to the wikileaks site and click upload. Let’s not read to much into this choice. I feel in this case Rosen has fallen victim to looking solely through his worldview – that the view-from-nowhere press is bad at everything.
Finally, all I wanted to highlight in my piece is that data exists on a continuum from those which could usefully be opened, to those that loose their value if opened and must remain secret. I personally would rather my elected government make this decision. Assange thinks everything government does should be open for us to see. I don’t. That being said, government will need to be pressured to do be more open, and part of this pressure should include calls for far more accountability. Only a more accountable government will have the credibility to convince a skeptical public that the secrecy decisions they make on our behalf are the right ones.
Where, for example, are the detainee transfer documents that nearly brought the present parliament down a year ago? A process was supposedly designed to balance national security with transparent government, yet to date not a single document has been released. It is a singular failure of both the Harper government and the opposition parties that this process has been treated with such negligence. And a more engaged citizenry would have demanded and empowered their representatives to act more responsibly. Ironically, it is this sort of behavior makes leaks all the more likely, as both bureaucrats and citizens stop trusting the government with the powers of secrecy we give them.
And this is where Dave’s work is so important. The question is not between absolute open and absolute closed. This is not, as much as some might like it to be, a revolution. It is not that romantic. As Dave regularly reminds us, it is a question of how we transition our government and institutions from the 20th to the 21st century. In this sense, it is, and must remain to be, incremental.