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.