On February 15, 2011 Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, delivered his second speech on Internet Freedom or “Internet Rights & Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World“. This the first part of a personal analysis of her speech. One, how to fit Wikileaks into a briefcase.
Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.”
Well, no. It is not the same. The obvious: you don’t need a briefcase to smuggle digital information, that’s the beauty of it. Yes, this sounds so bloody stupid/obvious/clear, but it actually points to an important truth (remember: truth always hides behind obviousness and paradox): information is not “briefcasable” anymore, that is, it flows, it cannot be kept in a drawer or in anything physically encaged. It can be copied and recopied with no cost. The support where information is recorded has changed, the cost of distributing information has changed with it, basically it has dropped to nearly nothing. Therefore, in terms of physical and cognitive effort, disclosing the diplomatic cables is something that anybody could have done, you just need a slight motivational push to do it. This brings the action of doing it to a different level: it’s freaking easy.
So why wouldn’t we do it? Here it is where the words “stolen” and “smuggled” have meaning. We wouldn’t do it because stealing is a bad thing. Only bad guys smuggle. We’re then in the realm of legitimate actions, norms and rules. What’s right and what’s wrong. So let’s ask to ourselves “is disclosing the US diplomatic cables an act of stealing? is it a bad thing?”.
Let’s focus on the act of stealing. In order to say that something’s stolen you need two actors: the thief and the owner of the thing. In the Cablegate case, we apparently have an alleged thief, Bradley Manning. But do we have an owner? Whom were the cables stolen from? The US federal government? the US population/taxpayer? It cannot be just of the first, for anything owned by US federal government is in fact owned by US population, right? So if the owner of the information is the US population and what Manning supposedly did, through Wikileaks, was to release this information to the US population, wasn’t he in fact doing the opposite, giving back to its legitimate owners the property of information that was previously stolen/appropriated by a few for the interests of the few?
Right. Let’s say that he actually didn’t (supposedly) steal it. Was he then doing a right thing by disclosing this information? Not necessarily, for the harm provoked by it could be greater than the good. On the one hand, the good goes from the re-appropriation by the legitimate owners of the information to helping to achieve freedom of information, which for many (including myself) is good in itself, and incidentally saving people’s lives and uncovering corruption (e.g. Tunisian dictator Ben Ali and co. (particularly his wife) abuse of power for personal gain). On the other hand, the bad consequences of disclosure are underlined in Clinton’s speech:
Some have suggested that this theft was justified because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of our work out in the open in the full view of our citizens. I respectfully disagree.
1) The disclosure has broken the necessary confidentiality to protect citizens’ security and the promotion of human rights and democracy
The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.
Absolutely right, total transparency is a non-sense. As we all know in our private lives, if you start sharing everything (I mean EVERYTHING) you think and do with everybody, you’d probably find yourself in big trouble soon. But is it all the information classified as confidential working for citizens’ security, and promotion of human rights and democracy? As we’ve seen from Wikileaks, clearly not. So who oversees those few that have the power (an amazing power by the way) to know very important things and keeping them for the few (normally well-connected people, friends and family)? They do it themselves! I don’t know much about human nature, but I know this much: let a group of people in charge of someone’s else’s property for indefinite time and tell them that they have total control of it and nobody will know what they do with it, and sooner or later they will start abusing it.
So actually the Wikileaks may have been a good thing. Yes, we should keep some information confidential, but the current system doesn’t work, for it is easily vulnerable to abuse by a few. As it actually is. Cablegate may open the opportunity for a reform towards a different system.
2) Diplomatic cables publication has put people’s lives at risk.
Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It is dangerous work. By publishing diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks exposed people to even greater risk.
This has been said over and over again. Even the US wrote to Julian Assange warning of the consequences for people’s lives due to the disclosure. But after nearly four months of leaks, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this risk being real (i.e. harm done to anybody in direct relation to the disclosure). And even if they would putting some people’s lives at risk, there’s still the legitimate question of how many lives the disclosure has actually saved.
I am a firm defender and promoter of freedom of information, disclosure and openness. I, however, understand, as many other do, the necessity of confidentiality or restrictions of this freedom for the protection of a very determined and very reduced number of essential values, namely people’s safety and privacy. Yet, this has to be done under the right guarantees and supervision, not left in the hands of the few for the few. That’s not democracy. That’s what was happening until now in international relations.
Right, Hillary Clinton:
We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public, and we must review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous
The U.S. Government’s ability to protect America, to secure the liberties of our people, and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should and must remain out of the public domain. The scale should and will always be tipped in favor of openness, but tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests.
But as Clary Shirky wittily said in his comment about the cablegate
When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.