Upcoming Talk: Symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom

I will be speaking at the Symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom organized by the Personal Democracy Forum in New York on December 11, 2010. More info here.

There is a great line-up speakers and the event (sold out) will include audience participation. I will post the crib of my talk here soon. In the meantime, you can follow the event on twitter (#pdfleaks) or through my twitter account, @techsoc

UPDATE: Here’s a first draft of some of the points I plan to make. Please note that my draft is evolving as I listen to the great discussion in the room:

DRAFT OF TALK (Subject to change):

First, let me start by pointing out something that often lost in the commotion over Wikileaks: these cables, available to about three million people, have not exposed well-guarded secrets as much as they have exposed the gap between the day-to-day reality of modern statecraft and its civic front. Thus, this uproar is more about accountability and norms of governance than about national security and grave secrets (more on this here).

Second, the question of the fate of Wikileaks and other attempts to hold states and corporations accountable through exposing of internal documents is primarily a question of legitimacy, rather than one of infrastructure. You’ve all seen the commentary about Wikileaks’ 1000 mirror sites, the fact that encrypted unredacted files have been put up on BitTorrent, etc. The idea some people have is that the government is fighting to keep Wikileaks’ information from “getting out,” and that, because of the architecture of the Internet, this is impossible and that Wikileaks wins.

This badly mistakes the point. As some ancient Greek philosopher might have asked, if a tree falls and the MP3 is only available on BitTorrent, does it make a sound? This kind of information only matters if it gets out to a wider public and even then only if it is presented within a particular context. If newspapers don’t print stories based on leaked information, if the very act of obtaining the information is can be portrayed to be criminal and treasonous, then the mere fact that the information is technically available to anyone who wants it will have no discernible consequence.

In this light, the seemingly comic-opera reaction of Joe Lieberman, getting Amazon and EveryDNS to boot Wikileaks, or getting Paypal, MasterCard, and Visa not to process donations to Wikileaks, can be seen as of profound significance. While Wikileaks can always get itself hosted (and mirrored) and while the dedicated can find a way to send it money (the attacks on it may even boost donations), all of these actions are part of an incremental process of delegitimizing the notion of exposing of inner workings of power. In this sense, this treatment of Wikileaks by major corporations is important not because it will succeed in bottling up any information, but because it places the information within a penumbra of unacceptability and illegitimacy.

Having said that, I want to emphasize for my third point that infrastructure does matter. Two of the most important kinds of social organizations, namely states and corporations, have become largely extraterritorial. Extraterritoriality refers to the notion that a given actor is not subject to the laws of the jurisdiction they are physically present in. Extraterritoriality was most commonly seen during colonialism and was one of its most-hated aspects. We are now living in a world where citizenship more and more resembles colonial subjecthood. Corporations flee to places wherever restrictions on them are fewest or wrestle concessions with the threat to flee. In Europe, they are cutting education and social welfare and bailing out giant banks. Governments everywhere tell us that they cannot do anything about the economy because they cannot anger global finance, our unelected lords, apparently. Citizens everywhere have become increasingly powerless and ineffective against these institutions that operate at the global scale in order to restrict us in the national one. Any effective response will similarly need to be on a global scale and keeping the Internet infrastructure open is crucial to all efforts to reassert our prerogatives as citizens, globally.

My fourth point is that recent events have demonstrated that key intersections of the Internet are now at the mercy of corporate power (more on the corporatization of our commons here). Some had argued that privatization of parts of the Internet backbone or the domain-name system was, might a good thing because, unlike states which may censor for political reasons, corporations don’t care what you say, they just care about money. Latest developments have shown this argument to be hollow. Corporations, especially those that deal with backbone and identity-type issues like telecom and credit card companies, are now heavily implicated in cooperation with the state; day to day, they are less able and less willing to be a counterweight, even by accident. So, my first appeal to technical people and their supporters. We need collaborative, open and alternative infrastructure.

For those who want to keep this avenue of accountability open and even see it grow (and you don’t have to agree with the full-on anti-secrecy ethic to be in this camp), the most effective actions do not necessarily involve low-orbit ion cannons, denial-of-service attacks, or any other breaking of Internet windows or virtual sit-ins, acts which often serve to derail the conversation more than they register protest. (Please note that I am not arguing whether DDoS is legitimate or not; rather, I am making a point about effectiveness, which must enter all tactical discussions). Rather, it requires ethical arguments, analysis of social forces, and coordinated political action. My second appeal is thus to everyone. Democracy needs you.

This brings me to my final point about the other key actor in this drama, the media. Journalists draw on a long and storied tradition of independence from the state. When the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1970, this was an act that had been hitherto unimaginable, at least in the American context. They did it, and they won a Supreme Court case establishing their right to do, incidentally, precisely what they are doing now.

I do not support a thoughtless or knee-jerk appeal to all-transparency all-the-time. However, given the realities of information technology, there will be more leaks. While powerful actors may succeed in delegitimizing the leaks, it will not be possible to disappear the information the way dictatorships disappear dissidents. The only sane way forward is if these exposures can be directed to credible intermediaries which can balance the public’s right to know with other legitimate considerations which will sometimes include those of national security.

Respected journalists are the best candidates to serve this crucial function of vetting, contextualizing and presenting such information. But first, they must re-establish themselves as outsiders to power. So, my third appeal is to journalists. This is not just an appeal for media altruism. Old style-journalism is dying and this is the way forward. I promise you, if you step up to this role, with real reportage and genuine investigation, the world will embrace you. The democracy you save could be your own.

5 thoughts on “Upcoming Talk: Symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom

  1. Will

    Just wanted to say that I appreciated your talk at the Symposium today. I watched it, until I found this page during the talk, whereby I got to read along (it was pretty close, well-done).

    I think that you’re absolutely right about the way that companies (i.e., Amazon) denying service to Wikileaks have served to delegitimize the organization in the eyes of the public, and (my words here) perhaps by proxy, the information in the cables themselves. On the other hand, I would be careful about your separation of tech-savvy people (people who, in your talk, might hunt a little further for information) from “the public”. That’s a model that is obsolescent. For example, even my 60-year old mother has mastered facebook privacy settings. Additionally, those barriers are constantly being mitigated by content distributors (e.g., you mentioned mirrors of the Wikileaks site being harder to find; however, the mirroring itself is a completely transparent. Go to wikileaks.org and it will redirect you automatically).

    In any case, thank you again for being on the panel.

  2. alan sloane

    thanks for the clarity of your arguments! Especially that wikileaks use of ‘cyberspace’ follows on MNC’s taking advantage of ‘extra-territoriality’ although the processes and the mechanisms by which each achieve the outcome are different. Reading Assange’s writings I was struck by his idea that the networks of power were hidden and that only by obstructing them would they be (partially) revealed. This seemed to me to mirror the thinking of many in the civil rights era who argued that protests and marches would reveal – in the shape of the state’s response – the “latent violence” that existed invisible to the rest of society. In that sense the actions of Lieberman, Amazon, Paypal et al mirror those of Alabama and George Wallace in their attack on the Selma to Montgomery marchers.

  3. gregorylent

    “journalism” is a for-profit business .. economics and government are not separate … your hopes for “journalism” to bite the hand that feeds it, or allows it to function, are not mature. imo.

  4. zeynep Post author

    @Will, Thanks. Kudos to your mom but I do maintain that we exaggerate the level of technical mastery that’s out there especially given the unnecessary complexity in most modern systems. I mean, FB privacy settings should be … no big deal, yet they are. And it’s important to separate mere technical mastery from socio-technical legitimacy.

    I am a former programmer and have paid my way through college babysitting various systems large and small, writing code for legacy systems as well as new ones and have dabbled in everything from Lisp to C to assembly and have been a network administrator for stuff ranging from S/38 (yeah, as in the dinosaur mainframe) to modern PC networks. Yes, I stopped being active when I became an academic and a sociologist but I consider myself a relatively quick learner in this arena… And I find myself baffled by some of the issues my vanilla desktop throws up and have spent hours uninstalling crapware that keeps finding its way in. That, to, me is a clear indicator of how much trouble non-techie people might face.

    Second, I am more concerned about the legitimacy that different websites/information might face. In that sense, intermediary organizations are really important. A lot of people have a few websites that they get their information from, often based on offline trust…

    @alan sloane. I have not read much of Assange’s writings. I think it is clear to many people that corporations have become extraterritorial; however, I think even the modern states has become extraterritorial to some degree. Some of it is indirect, states claim that corporations/finance won’t let them do … X. It’s not even untrue but is a strong sign that governance has become increasingly hollow.

    @gregorylent. I don’t disagree that economics plays a great role. There is a lot of corruption. However, there are also a lot journalists out there who became journalists to do something that mattered. It’s even possible that they can organize themselves outside of existing power structures. Besides, there they are and that’s where a lot of people do get their information. We have to think about this and consider existing structures as well as alternatives.

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