Notes on Wikileaks

I recently met Julian Assange. My conversation with him helped to shine a light on for Wikileaks’ internal processes, just as Raffi Khatchadourian’s brilliant piece in the New Yorker and Julian’s TED talk also helped to do.

Julian’s point, which I agree with, is often that newspapers are failing because of bad journalism. How many stories has Wikileaks broken vs the Times. Or the Guardian. Combined. And as budget cuts increase, it allows for good journalism to emerge from Global Voices and other interesting new projects.

This disruptive media source is something that western governments are now struggling with. I’ve been speaking with members of EU Parliament about it and have even presented to US Congress on the subject. Pinning the internet to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as Secretary Clinton did in her “Internet Freedom” speech was a bold move, but not one entirely based in reality. There is a lack of general consensus as to the nature of these right, making it hard to implement policy after the fact of making a strong declaration. The US needs allies in this battle in sympathetic governments (and vice-versa since so many tools are built here), but there’s a lack of consistency with what’s happening across the pond.

There was recently a hearing on (Self) Censorship: New Challenges for Freedom of Expression In Europe by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Julian and one of his greatest suporters Birgitta Jonsdottir, Member of the Icelandic Parliament for the Movement spoke on the legal and political questions surrounding freedom of expression. This included Defamation law, source protection, safety, libel and the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. This last point is particularly interesting as a legal protectorate for Wikileaks as the most progressive freedom of expression legislation in the world. This due to a scandal in Iceland after a bank injunction censored the media in the lead up to the financial collapse there. Will governments be forced to deal with the reality of a system like Wikileaks after (if) this passes.

After all, even an internet based-system is not “stateless.” It is bound by servers and wiring, of which only a few people know. And only a few lawyers know the legal frame that allows it to exist through the cables and servers of a handful of friendly States. In this sense it continues to be “centralized” even if the system for leaking itself is distributed and protected.

Unfortunately governments often set themselves up for projects like Wikileaks. When doing so it is at great expense to their own integrity, not to mention the taxpayer. In the US, the States Secret Privilege is, in part, protected by the supreme court case US vs Reynolds. It’s now believed to have been founded due to executive abuse. With the government unable or unwilling to balance it’s own power, it’s encouraging to see citizens step up to the task. Ideally, these citizens hold the universally agreed upon standards of human rights above all else.

But as Daniel Ellsberg points out in a recent conversation with Julian at Personal Democracy Forum, there’s a difference between knowingly photocopying thousands of pages of what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers,” and doing so for hours, thinking and rethinking the process the whole time and just clicking a button.

My great concern is, as Julian’s, why we’re not getting better coverage of what’s in the documents. The fact that military documents were leaked only proves that the US government is in a war with Afghanistan (not news) and that disaffected teenage soldiers with security clearance are not to be trusted (not news, but shocking that they exist). Most of Wikileaks actual leaks were unveiled to the public and media at the same time. The current leak took a different approach, giving it to the media first. In rare cases has there been an in-depth look at what is actually inside those or any other documents. The real story is in the data, and that remains the hardest thing to uncover.