Will Transparency Trump Secrecy In The Digital Age?

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.


Other works I’ve reviewed:

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

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)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

10 thoughts on “Will Transparency Trump Secrecy In The Digital Age?”

  1. Would another organization similar to WikiLeaks require a different funding structure? It seems corporations are ready to pounce anything remotely similar to the WikiLeaks model.

      1. I agree with the substance of Mr. Silfry’s argument. As for solutions, I’m convinced the speech-related microtransaction… by itself is a FUNDAMENTAL NEED for scaling speech and accountability… and can further form the basis of a user-owned network (or network of related networks) under terms protecting the Internet (and the Rights of the Commons) from intrusion by either private corporate interests or the narrow selfd-interest of governments.

        I’m pleased this concept seems to be getting through to some in this community… and I can only hope that at some point this industry will have interest in hearing why I believe this utility is so necessary.

        Issues in Scaling Civilization: The Altruism Problem

        Decision Technologies: Currencies and the Social Contract 

        The Chagora Model: Scaling Speech

  2. I am not sure why you are suggesting that accountability and transparency are equivalents.  Its not clear to me that a Wikileaks doesn’t make public officials more transparent but less able to do their jobs.  In a sense, then, the transparency is making officials less able to be held accountable because its harder to do their job.  And your argument that corporations have marginalized Wikileaks due to government pressure as opposed to their own self-interest is a little hard to comprehend.  

    It seems to me the issue comes down to how do you hold an institution accountable and to what extent to you give the players enough room to do their jobs well.  I don’t think that should be up to another entity.   I do think that if you feel that those institutions are not sufficiently accountable you need to find ways to make them more so.  I think that the weakening of our national press (at least in terms of investigative journalism and all the things that cost money but don’t add to the bottom line) is a problem here.  However, I’m not sure that Wikileaks is the answer.  If anything, I think Wikileaks causes more problems as it ends up silencing those who have the courage to be candid in private in order to try to accomplish a particular goal.

    So, ultimately to me, its not a question of whether or not to have secrecy but the balance between the need to keep some information private / confidential / secret for quite some time against everything to be seen in real time or near real time.  And I think a compelling case could be made that the latter has played a significant role in making it very difficult for governments to operate and make tough decisions since by doing so some group will be unhappy and that group will be sufficiently energized as to do all they can to stop the government from moving forward.   It seems to me the real problem is that you need some individuals who both have the interests of the insitutions in mind but also the sense of what is beyond the pale to call everyone’s attention to some things and maintain some standards.  Without such an elite of sorts, its almost impossible to balance things and without balance, its really hard to maintain our system or other open and democratic systems.

    Interesting thoughts, however.  I recommend Ezra Klein’s review of the Lessig book at the New York Review of Books, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/our-corrupt-politics-its-not-all-money/?pagination=false.


  3. I enjoy this book as a field guide steeped in anthropology- The Sacred Geometry of Washington D.C: The Integrity and Power of the Original Design. Nicholas Mann
    Some holistic perspectives on the intentions of the founding fathers, the vision and plans of the architect, why developments have disconnected, and where the design remains unfinished.

  4. The thing about Wikileaks is that, while it champions transparency, there’s still the issue of verification. The public remains unsure as to how seriously they should take these documents. It’s a big hit among conspiracy theorists, but it still remains suspicious to the average person. 

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