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February 16, 2011

In praise of what Secretary Clinton did not say about Wikileaks

Especially when a prepared talk is being given in the midst of a difficult controversy, most of what matters is in what is not said. For that reason, I think Secretary Clinton’s speech on Net Freedom yesterday was actually quite encouraging about the State Department’s attitude toward Wikileaks. In this I seem to differ with many of my friends and colleagues. (See, for example, this thread from the Berkman mailing list. See also Mathew Ingram. Ethan Zuckerman posts his overall reaction, plus a brilliant draft speech he’d suggested Clinton deliver. Yochai Benkler has posted a draft of a paper [pdf] that — with Yochai’s accustomed astounding command of facts, law, argument, and moral insight — assails the claimed grounds for prosecuting Wikileaks) [Disclosure: I am a Franklin Fellow at the State Dept., attached to the group that works on the internal use of social media. This is a non-paying fellowship, and I feel no obligation to make nice, although I’m human.]

Secretary Clinton spent a substantial portion of her talk discussing Wikileaks.

The Internet’s strong culture of transparency derives from its power to make information of all kinds available instantly. But in addition to being a public space, the Internet is also a channel for private conversations. For that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online.

Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communication to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products, to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential, to protect them from retribution.

And governments also rely on confidential communication—online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not change the need for it.

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It’s been a false debate in many ways. 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.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. 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 most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. 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 review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

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 remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests—and the public’s least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

Now, one way to read this is to imagine what you wish Clinton had said, or what you would have said if given the opportunity. That certainly has its uses. But it’s essentially a daydream, for it acts as if high-visibility political speeches occur outside of political consequences and negotiations. (Ethan’s imagining, noted above, was within a pragmatic context, attempting to provide a vision for the talk.) If instead we take this speech as the result of a political struggle, then we have to hear not just the daydream, but the nightmare: Forces within the government must have been urging Clinton to take a hard line against Wikileaks and to use Wikileaks as a justification for constraining the Internet. When you consider all that Clinton does not say about Wikileaks, this speech is actually, in my view, quite encouraging. Indeed, in saying that “It’s been a false debate in many ways,” she does not narrow the criticism to the media’s participation; we are left to assume that she is also scolding elements of the government.

You say “Pshaw!” to the idea that this is a pretty enlightened speech? I understand that reaction, since this address is coming from a government that has reacted overall quite poorly to the Wikileaks leaks. (See especially Yochai Benkler’s comments in the Berkman thread and his comprehensive article.)( But that’s exactly why we ought to view the speech as a sign of hope that at least some elements of the government are catching on to what the Net is about, what it’s for, and what it can and cannot do. (“What the Net can and cannot do” is, from my point of view, pretty much the theme of the entire speech, which by itself is encouraging.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by reading the speech in light of what it does not say. Secretary Clinton does say that the Wikileaks incident “began with an act of theft.” But, she is careful not to say that Wikileaks was the thief. Instead, she refers to Wikileaks as making the documents public, as releasing them, and as publishing them. You can imagine the pressure on her to characterize Wikileaks as the source of the documents — as the thief — rather than as the recipient and publisher of them. (She does slip in an ambiguous phrase: “we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase.”)

Overall, I read the Wikileaks section of the speech as a refusal to blame the Internet, and as a refusal to issue threats against Wikileaks (and against the next Wikileaks-like site). True, Secretary Clinton “condemns” the leaks, but given the range of options for a Secretary of State, what else would you expect? That she would condone the indiscriminate leaking of confidential information? It’s confidential. Of course she’s going to condemn leaks, and in no uncertain terms.

The question is what follows from that condemnation. What followed were not threats against Wikileaks, not a clamping down on State Department security to ensure that “this never happens again,”not a retreat from Clinton’s emphasis on building a “need to share culture” within State, and not support for new policies that would put “reasonable” controls on the Internet to “ensure” that such “illegal acts” never recur, for “a free Internet does not mean a lawless Internet.” (All items in quotes are phrases I’ve made up but that I can imagine some in the government insisting be inserted.) The only statement about policies to address such leaks says that the Obama Administration did not “coerce” private companies to act to shut down (or shut off) Wikileaks; the clear implication is that the government should not engage in such coercion.

Now, we can imagine our own preferred words coming out of Secretary Clinton’s mouth, and we certainly can and should compare her statements with the actual behavior of State and the government overall. There was room for her to have gone further; I would have liked it better if she had, as per Yochai’s suggestion, acknowledged that State initially over-reacted in some chilling ways. But, in the context of the political debate, I think Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wikileaks are encouraging, and her explicit rejection of limiting Internet freedom because sometimes leaks happen is hopeful.

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December 15, 2010

Face of the Year

Time Magazine’s choice of Person of the Year is meaningless as data, but meaningful as metadata. Picking one person as the most influential in a year is almost always just silly. No one takes it seriously except as a signifier of broader cultural currents.

This year it’s Mark Zuckerberg. That seems to me to be one of the many reasonable choices Time could have made. But I have two meta-comments.

1. I’m glad that Time took MZ over Julian Assange. Facebook is truly influential and important. WikiLeak’s importance is primarily symbolic, and it has been given that symbolic importance mainly by forces that want to use it as justification for killing what they don’t like about the Internet — its openness, its bottom-uppity character, its distrust of extrinsic controls…in other words, all that makes it the Internet.

2. The contrast the Time article draws between MZ and the portrait of him in The Social Network (a movie I did not care for) will, I hope, hurt the movie’s chances at the Oscars. It makes vandalism of Wikipedia’s biographies of living people look bush league.

(Lev Grossman’s cover story about MZ for Time is well worth reading.)


December 10, 2010

Berkman Buzz (Special Wikileaks Edition)

Here’s this week’s Berkman Buzz, as compiled by Jillian York [twitter:jillianyork]

  • John Palfrey hits the radio to talk about controversial site

  • Alum Derek Bambauer discusses the USICE’s seizure of 82 domains:

  • Jonathan Zittrain evaluates the latest developments for net neutrality:

  • The OpenNet Initiative looks at Net censorship in Syria:

Special Section: This Week on WikiLeaks

  • Clay Shirky envisions what a post-WikiLeaks future looks like:

  • Jonathan Zittrain and Molly Sauter provide an A-Z of WikiLeaks:

  • Dan Gillmor argues a defense of WikiLeaks:

  • The OpenNet Initiative analyzes Twitter’s trending topics vis-a-vis #WikiLeaks:

  • Radio Berkman 171: WikiLeaks and the Information Wars:

  • Weekly Global Voices: “Special Coverage: WikiLeaks and the World 2010”:

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December 8, 2010

[2b2k] Too Many Leaks to Know

Jeremy Wagstaff has a terrific post looking at the leaked cables not as a security problem but as an information problem. Too much data, not enough metadata, not enough sharing, not enough ability to sort and make sense of them all.

I hesitate to excerpt some key paragraphs from it for fear of distracting you from the post in its entirety. Nevertheless:

..,the problem that WikiLeaks unearths is that the most powerful nation on earth doesn’t seem to have any better way of working with all this information than anyone else. Each cable has some header material—who it’s intended for, who it’s by, and when it was written. Then there’s a line called TAGS, which, in true U.S. bureaucratic style doesn’t actually mean tags but “Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject”—a state department system to organize and manage the cables. Many are two letter country or regional tags—US, AF, PK etc—while others are four letter subject tags—from AADP for Automated Data Processing to PREL for external political relations, or SMIG for immigration related terms.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this—the tag list is updated regularly (that last one seems to be in January 2008). You can filter a search by, say, a combination of countries, a subject tag and then what’s called a program tag, which always begins with K, such as KPAO for Public Affairs Office.

This is all very well, but it’s very dark ages. The trouble is, as my buff friend in the Kabul garden points out, there’s not much out there that’s better. A CIA or State Department analyst may use a computer to sift through the tags and other metadata, but that seems to be the only real difference between him and his Mum or Dad 50 years before.

Read the whole thing here.

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Standing with the Net

Life is complex, but sometimes it comes down to taking sides.

I don’t mean about Wikileaks. As Micah Sifry [twitter: mlsif] has tweeted, “I don’t know if I’m pro-Wikileaks, but I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks.”

Me, too. Especially when the full power of government and commerce is unleashed against it. Wikileaks embodies transitional ambiguity in several intersecting, crucial social processes normally handled unambiguously by traditional institutions. So, ambivalence is a proper response, and, arguably the only proper response. (For contrast, see the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s reaction, by Mark Thiessen.)

I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks not because I know I like Wikileaks (although I do lean that way). It’s not Wikileaks that has summoned the wrath of the incumbents. It’s the Internet. The incumbents have now woken up to the Net’s nature, and are deploying every weapon they can find against it, including siccing Interpol on Julian Assange for incidents of what were reportedly consensual sex. (You’ve probably already read Naomi Wolf’s scathing, hilarious response.) [Later that day: Wolf’s casual assertions are likely wrong. The charges are more serious than what I said.] As Milton Mueller writes at the Internet Governance Project:

Whatever one’s opinion about the wisdom, responsibility and ethical justification of the revelations, it has shown that there is a new countervailing force in the world that the militarists and diplomats don’t know how to control yet. This is, on the whole, a good thing. It is true that the disclosure power Wikileaks invoked can be abused. It can do real damage. But in relative terms, it is far more benign that the power it is being used against in this case and its legitimacy resides more in public opinion than anything else. The hysteria generated by foreign policy hawks polarizes the world around the internet and its capabilities and shows that, all too often, those who claim to be defenders of freedom are its worst enemies.

Denizens of the Net are choosing sides. To my dismay, Amazon and eBay’s PayPal have decided that they are on the Net but not of the Net. When it comes down to it, they have decided they don’t really care for the Internet all that much, except as a low-friction cash register. How we would have rejoiced if Amazon and eBay had stood up to those who want to stop the flow of information that they don’t like. Instead they folded.

Amazon’s capitulation is especially disappointing. It has so benefited from its enlightened ideas about trust and openness. Yet, because karma does occasionally get itself out of bed in the morning, they will pay: What business is going to trust its data to Amazon’s cloud, knowing that one phone call from Senator McScrooge is enough to get Amazon to inspect or destroy its data?

I have my leanings, but I am ambivalent about everything in the past fifteen year’s messy cultural, societal transition. But my ambivalence shows up in how to navigate on the unambivalent ground on which I stand. I stand with the Net.


December 5, 2010

Truth is not enough

I haven’t posted anything about Wikileaks because it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of commentary. Also, I am deeply conflicted about it, for predictable reasons: I’m happy to see some nasty government programs exposed, but I also believe governments and the people who work for them need to have conversations that are frank, honest, private, and even regrettable.

I here just want to comment on a particular theory of truth that many are using to justify Wikileaks. This ideas says that “the truth” is a neutral and accurate depiction of how the world is. One is thus always justified in stating the truth.

That definition may be true, or it may be true as stipulated, but it’s not useful. In fact, it’s the opposite of useful because it misses truth’s value. Someone who babbles an endless series of true statements is insane. Kierkegaard talked about this as “objective madness.” He imagines a patient walking home from a stay in an insane asylum trying to convince people he’s sane by repeating over and over something true: “The world is round. The world is round.” The same ex-patient would be just as insane if he varied his list of true things as he strolls down the street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.”

Truth can be noise. Truth can be used to distract us. Truth can be wicked violence. It is not enough, therefore, to justify your blurtings by saying, “But it’s the truth!” Truth’s value comes from its role in the complex social fabric — network — within which we live. That network contains many other human values, purposes, and fallibilities. The truth matters because it helps us act in our world, together.

So, I don’t think Wikileaks’ actions can be justified simply by saying, “But the site is just saying the truth!” It’s far more complex than that. What effect will this exposure have? How might it have been a more effective exposure? What do we gain and what to we lose. With this round of Wikileaks, we both gain and lose, imo.

Here, by the way, I think Assange’s interests diverge from many of us who believe in the power of transparency. I find persuasive Zungzungu’s argument, based on a 2006 writings attributed to Assange [pdf], that Wikileaks is not about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine: It is aiming at rendering “authoritarian conspiracies” ineffective. I am glad that the site has exposed some of my government’s wickedness; I am unhappy that it is going to render it less effective in the good that it does. And I am unhapy with my government’s response to the leak.

Here are links to some Berkman posts about Wikileaks. And here’s a discussion initiated by Jay Rosen about Assange’s non-answer to a question like the one this post raises.