Shades of Grey (a Fragment)

by Karin Kosina vka kyrah
Is Wikileaks a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

I have been following the unfolding of events related to the latest Wikileaks release with growing fascination. I am not going to comment here on the political implications of the cables' contents - others have done so elsewhere, and will continue to do so, far better than I ever could. What I am going to comment on is the debate around Wikileaks, and a trend I have observed within that debate that I find very concerning.

Few things in the world are black and white. And few things in the world are less black and white than the latest Wikileaks release and its implications. I am not referring to any foreign policy effects. I am speaking about the general questions that are being raised. Questions of how we as a society should adapt to the changed realities of a digital age. Questions of transparency, accountability, and responsibility. Questions that lie at the heart of the age-old balance/trade-off between security and liberty.

These are complex issues, and very important ones. They need and deserve to be discussed in a differentiated way. However what I see is a debate that is increasingly drawn in black and white. "Are you pro-Wikileaks or contra-Wikileaks?" From this question, all else seems to (be supposed to) follow.

You think that the US spying on UN officials was wrong? Then there is no such thing as a valid need for confidentiality, Assange is a saint-hero being framed for crimes he did not commit, and Anonymous is right in DDOSing MasterCard.

You think that Wikileaks was wrong to publish confidential documents that might put innocent individuals at risk? Then the government is right to do "whatever it takes" to stop Wikileaks, due process is a luxury we cannot afford in the face of this (or any) crisis, and Julian Assange should have been assassinated a long time ago.

Of course I am exaggerating to some degree, but these are the general lines along which much of the discussion seems to happen. I have been bothered by this for the last few days, and decided to write this article to collect my thoughts, and perhaps even contribute to a more differentiated discussion. Please note this is in many ways a brain-dump, and not an attempt at a final answer in any way (hence the title).


I have been asked many times in the last few days what my opinion on Wikileaks is. Is Wikileaks a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? My answer is invariably, "It's complicated."

I think that whistleblowers fulfil an extremely important role in society. There have always been courageous men and women who put their safety, well-being, and sometimes even their lives on the line to serve the public good by publishing evidence that would otherwise remain hidden. These individuals have my deepest admiration and gratitude. In the sense that Wikileaks provides a safer way for these people to do this, yes, it is a good thing.

At the same time, I do not see the release of a complete body of classified documents as whisteblowing in that sense. A whistleblower takes a very hard decision: does the benefit of making this concrete piece of information public outweigh the negative consequences (to the whisteblower herself, but also in terms of collateral damage to innocent people).

I personally would support the leaking of material that documents crimes that would otherwise go unpublished (and unpunished), such as US diplomats spying on UN leaders. In this case I would say that the benefit to the public good outweighs any foreign policy fallout (and even risks to individuals, more on that below). When the US State Dept. orders civil servants to violate international law, the American people have a right to know.

I do not see, however, how the public good is served by indiscriminately publishing a complete collection of classified internal notes just because you can. (Note: I do not consider feeding the tabloids as serving the public good.) This is not whisteblowing, it is something else entirely. And in my book, you don't break confidentiality unless you have an overriding moral reason for doing so.

Of course some claim that there is a moral reason: that complete transparency - in the sense of publication of each and every document authored by a government representative - is in itself serving the public good. Which raises an interesting question:

Is there a legitimate need for confidentiality?

Well, is there? Or should all that any government representative ever writes be public information? - To me personally at least it seems clear that yes, of course, there are legitimate reasons for not publishing everything.

Without even going into the disputed territory of "national security", lets look at it this way: Diplomatic negotiations are really not that different from business meetings. Suppose I attend a conference and have dinner with some of my company's partners and competitors. The next day I send an email to my boss updating her on what's going on. I would like to be able to say things like "The CTO of X seems like a really smart cookie, we'll have to keep an eye on what they're up to. Mr. Y on the other hand doesn't seem to get cloud computing at all, he talks like he's stuck in 1995." - Wouldn't you? Of course if I knew that X and Y would read that email, my report would be limited to polite platitudes. No (or very limited) information would get passed back to HQ. And who would benefit from this? No-one really.

I am sorry to put it this bluntly, but at the end of the day, that's just how things work. In real negotiations, there is often a need for privacy, on several levels. The idea of full publication of everything sounds like a naive fiction to me. A charming one, perhaps, but fiction nonetheless.

I do realise that many of you will have a different perspective on this, and that's fine. In fact, it is because of these different perspectives that hopefully we will be able to have a fruitful discussion regarding the complex balance between the need for transparency and the need for confidentiality (both of which I consider to be essential and legitimate needs). I am bringing this up mainly to remind everyone that this is an open question and should be discussed as such, not implicitly taken for granted - as it mostly has been in the debate so far.

The real risk

Back to the trade-off between the public good and potential negative consequences. As I said, I do not see much public good in the indiscriminate publication of confidential documents. What I do see is much potential damage.

I am not so much concerned about the harm for US foreign policy (which is simply not any of my business). What I am concerned about is the risk for innocent individuals - activists, dissidents, people who were working with the US in an attempt to fight corruption, violence and injustice. The very people that, under different circumstances, might have to make use of the Wikileaks infrastructure themselves. (Do you see why I'm saying it's complicated?)

I am sure I am not the only one who has used the full text search on the cables released so far to worriedly check for the presence of certain friends' names...

And no, I do not find it very comforting when Wikileaks says that they have redacted the cables to make sure there is no such risk of discovery. How would they know what poses a risk and what doesn't?

Again, this is a trade-off that I feel could justifiably be made in specific cases - "let's publish document X: it is so important that this concrete content be made public that any remaining collateral risk is acceptable" - but for a general file dump such as the present one? I am not so sure.

The infrastructure issue

An additional complicating factor is the fact that Wikileaks itself is (mostly) just infrastructure. The ethical questions about whether or not to leak confidential information are primarily questions that the individual who has access to that information must answer. To what degree can an infrastructure provider be held responsible?

Would we blame the New York Times for releasing confidential documents that were sent to them by an anonymous informer? (Even if we would blame them, we would not hold them legally responsible - recall the Pentagon Papers case.) And moreover, wouldn't they even have a moral obligation to publish the information once they have it?

Is Wikileaks different from a classical news source? If so, how - and what does this mean?

Not pro-WL but certainly anti-anti-WL

Regardless of where you stand regarding Wikileaks itself, or even if you couldn't care less: there are much larger issues at stake here. I am fully with Micah L. Sifry on this:

"While I am not 100% sure I am for everything that Wikileaks has done and is doing, I do know that I am anti-anti-Wikileaks. The Internet makes possible a freer and more democratic culture, but only if we fight for it. And that means standing up precisely when unpopular speakers test the boundaries of free speech, and would-be censors try to create thought-crimes and intimidate the rest of us into behaving like children or sheep."

The right to free expression is one of the core values of our society. It greatly worries me that my possibility to exercise that right could be taken away simply by the allegation of illegal activity.

This is exactly what happened to the Wikileaks project: Their DNS provider (Everydns), their server host (Amazon), and the major online payment companies (Paypal, MasterCard, Visa) all cancelled their contracts with Wikileaks within a few days, effectively destroying the operative and financial base of the project.

Speculations abound that these actions were due to pressure from the government, but we do not know for sure. Let's wait and see when the smoke clears. But even if these private companies' decisions were not due to direct government intervention, the case raises a very important question. In a world where the exercise of our right to free speech is increasingly dependent on intermediaries, should these intermediaries have full and sole discretion over if and how we can do so?

Rebecca MacKinnon has written an excellent article about this issue: Wikileaks, Amazon and the new threat to internet speech. I consider this one of the must-read pieces in the debate so far. To quote her conclusion:

"The future of freedom in the internet age may well depend on whether we the people can succeed in holding companies that now act as arbiters of the public discourse accountable to the public interest."

Why does this matter? It matters because it is our basic rights and values that are being touched here. Even if I disagreed completely with the Wikileaks project, unless and until the action of publishing these materials had been found illegal by a regular court of law, I would support - nay, demand - their right to publish their views.

"I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." (as Voltaire supposedly put it)

The Conclusion?

My conclusion is that there is no conclusion.

Is Wikileaks a good thing? Were they right in releasing these documents? I will have to echo the words of Zhou Enlai when he was asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: It is too soon to tell.

I doubt that I ever will have a black or white answer to these questions. I certainly don't have one now. Wikileaks is, with all its consequences. I'd rather see us engage in what it all means.

I do think that the Wikileaks incident will lead to a wider and deeper debate on the crucial questions of how we as a society adjust to the changed realities of the information age. This is a Good Thing. I also think that we will not serve anybody by oversimplifying any of the issues involved - least of all those of us who still believe that the digital society can be a more free, fair and transparent one.

So please, ladies and gentlemen, let's not screw this up. Let us talk about complex issues in a way that reflects that complexity. The world is and remains rendered in shades of grey.  

// 20101209 _ Karin Kosina vka kyrah _ email || twitter _ released under the cc by-nd license _