Next week I travel to Washington DC. While I am meeting with a wide swath of policymakers, thinkers, and lobbyists, I don’t have a well-defined goal – I’m not trying to convince anyone of my opinion on any particular issue (though certainly I’m sure I’ll have some robust debates), nor am I trying to pull pungent quotes from political figures for my book. Rather I am hoping to steep in the culture of the place, make a number of new connections, and perhaps discover a bit more about how this unique institution called “the Federal Government” really works.
To prepare, I’ve been reading a fair number of books, including Larry Lessig’s Republic Lost, which I reviewed last month, and The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain, which I reviewed last year.
Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry is the latest policy-related book to light up my Kindle. I finished it four weeks ago, but travel and conferences have gotten in the way of my writing it up here. But given I’ve already moved on to Lessig’s updated Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 (highly recommended), and am about to dive into McKinnon’s new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, I figured I better get something up, and quick. I’m way behind on my writing about my reading, so to speak.
Sifry’s book turns on this question, raised early in the work: “Is Wikileaks a symptom of decades of governmental and institutional opacity, or is it a disease that needs to be stopped at all costs?”
Put another way, if we kill Wikileaks (as many on both the left and right wish we would), what do we lose in the process?
Sifry argues that for all its flaws (including that of its founder and mercurial leader Julian Assange, who Sifry has met), Wikileaks – or at least what Wikileaks represents, is proving a crucial test of democracy in an age where our most powerful institutions are increasingly unaccountable.
Sifry argues that the rise (and potential fall) of Wikileaks heralds an “age of transparency,” one that can’t come fast enough, given the digital tools of control increasingly in the hands of our largest social institutions, both governmental and corporate (not to mention religious). And while it’s easy to fall into conspiratorial whispers given the subject, Sifry wisely does not – at least, not too much. He clearly has a point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, I doubt his book will change your mind. But it’s certainly worth reading, if your mind is open.
Sifry’s core argument: We can’t trust institutions if that trust doesn’t come with accountability. To wit:
“We should be demanding that the default setting for institutional power be “open,” and when needed those same powers should be forced to argue when things need to remain closed. Right now, the default setting is “closed.”
Sifry gives an overview of the Wikileaks case, and points out the US government’s own position of hypocrisy:
“If we promote the use of the Internet to overturn repressive regimes around the world, then we have to either accept the fact that these same methods may be used against our own regime—or make sure our own policies are beyond reproach.”
Sifry is referring to Wikileaks much covered release of State department cables, which has been condemned by pretty much the entire power structure of the US government (Assange and others face serious legal consequences, which are also detailed in the book). Even more chilling was the reaction by corporate America, which quickly closed ranks and cut off Wikileaks’ funding sources (Visa, Mastercard, Paypal) and server access (Amazon).
In short, Wikileaks stands accused, but not proven guilty. But from the point of view of large corporations eager to stay in the good graces of government, Wikileaks is guilty till proven innocent. And that’s a scary precedent. As Sifry puts it:
“If WikiLeaks can be prosecuted and convicted for its acts of journalism, then the foundations of freedom of the press in America are in serious trouble.”
and, quoting scholar Rebecca McKinnon:
“Given that citizens are increasingly dependent on privately owned spaces for our politics and public discourse … the fight over how speech should be governed in a democracy is focused increasingly on questions of how private companies should or shouldn’t control speech conducted on and across their networks and platforms.”
But not all is lost. Sifry also chronicles a number of examples of how institutional misconduct has been uncovered and rectified by organizations similar to Wikileaks. Sifry believes that the Wikileaks genie is out of the bottle, and that transparency will ultimately win over secrecy.
But the book is a statement of belief, rather than a proof. Sifry argues that the open culture of the Internet must trump the closed, control-oriented culture of power-wielding institutions. And while I certainly agree with him, I also share his clear anxiety about whether such a world will actually come to be.
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)