Wikinomics of Leaks

The return on investment from open government data is starting to be shown by projects such as apps for democracy. What about the current WikiLeaks cablegate release of American diplomatic cables?

With the Apps for Democracy contest, there were 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps built on government data, with an economic return of 400%. The government plugged in $50,000 dollars to produce an estimated value of $2,300,000. In the Information age, this is an exciting example of government as enabler, rather than creator, but producing large amounts of value. Rather than the deficit creating powerhouse that it’s now known as, this is a wonderful redefinition.

WikiLeaks will have a similar effect. Maybe a “Wikileaks for Democracy” contest should be started. With all the information released to the public, there already have been so many articles written and stories produced that WikiLeaks is now twice as well-known as Wikipedia, much to the shame of their conservative founder and fundraiser Jimmy Wales I’m sure. It has entered the zeitgeist to the point of a pseudo Julian Assange opening Saturday Night Live this weekend (if that’s a proper measure any longer).


How many books will be published on this data, courses built analyzing the information and debates encouraged due to this transparency? And how will the credibility of those produced works be ensured? Conspiracy theorists have always had a field day conjecturing about the goings-on of diplomats behind the scenes. As have an increasing number of american politicians, like birthers and other maniacs who push the idea that American foreign aid is a significant part of the government budget. Perhaps this will add more encouragement for data verification.

With data dumps like this, that are structured and searchable, it makes it that much easier for lazy journalists in a struggling industry to publish things of value. The first stories, as expected, have been the gossip in the wires. Ironically SNL said it best, contrasting it to TMZ. But the real story is in serious relations between warring nations, nuclear arsenals, and who is covering the story so far. The fact that the leaks have been covered up in China and to a large extent in the Middle East, should be noted and appreciated by governments that praise free speech.

As WikiLeaks comes under increasing attack, it’s important to understand what is justified and what will lead to the end of the Internet as an open space. FAIR has pointed out that WikiLeaks didn’t actually leak anything. Someone inside the US government leaked it, and put it up on a website, called WikiLeaks. They could have published a torrent, released it on Limewire (for now) or any other p2p network, or circulated it directly to a hostile foreign government without anyone knowing better. Calls by politicians like Joe Lieberman with so-called SHIELD Act (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination) would amend a section of the Espionage Act to expand the powers of government dramatically beyond the constitution are not only frightening, but they fundamentally misunderstand the functionality of the Internet.

In Thailand, Jiew might go to 82 years for editing a website where someone posted nefarious comments about the Thai King. While they were removed as soon as they could be, she was indicted, due to the new Internet law. If this is instituted in the USA, the implications will be enormous, for business and for society. If a Facebook, Amazon or others are held responsible for the comments left on their sites, particularly if under espionage laws, then these businesses that are driving our 21st century economy will disappear, leaving only the underworld of the Internet intact, where accountability is returned to zero and information is difficult to verify.

What’s potentially more frightening is the reaction governments that are already hostile to liberties will have. Clay Shirky points this out:

The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site.

There’s also a strong potential for disinformation as attacks on the original site get ramped up. There are hundreds of supposed WikiLeaks mirrors due to the main site coming under attack. And a Lebanese site supposedly has 183 additional cables. The problem is not that the information is going away, but rather that it’s now harder to verify because it’s in so many places. As Robert Guerra correctly points out:

Patrick Meier points out that this is just the first in a series of spin-offs, such as a “Humanitarian Wikileaks.” Years ago I proposed a human rights wikileaks that be accessible to individuals in repressive regimes by their mobile phones, but it hasn’t gotten much traction as large organizations are either confused by new technology or scared of it.

It’s important to understand responsibility when an illegal act takes place, but also what actions that are taken for “security theatre” that actually make the situation worse, both in terms of human rights, civic rights and business. The decisions about the future of the internet are being made, and my greatest worry is that Wikileaks is doing a disservice to the phrase “transparency,” thus implicating the free and open web as we know it.

Updated to include Clay Shirky.

1 Comment

  1. December 6, 2010 at 7:14 pm · Reply

    Hey Mark,

    Nice post! My two cents..

    While openness and transparency are noble goals, I think it’s always important to consider somebody’s agenda, especially when granting them the kind of power of discourse that the media and governments have given Assange.

    His sensationalism and indiscriminate publishing of unimportant, obvious, and gossipy cables alongside a few important ones gives me clues. Unless you believe he has no political agenda other than radical openness, it seems clear that he is trying to destroy and weaken institutions. And unless you believe he uses the media tactics he does only because nobody would listen to him otherwise, it seems clear that he is an expert at wrapping the 24-hour news cycle around these cables before fact checking or perspective has a chance to kick in. As they say, a lie can travel across the whole world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.

    But I can’t see his way not winning out. It’s the internet and nobody really controls it, regardless of what China might say.

    Hope all is well!

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