Monthly Archives: December 2010

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.

Wikileaks is not about secret information; it’s about insiders versus outsiders

Many commentators have noted that the confidential U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks contain nothing that would surprise an “informed observer.” I agree and have said so as much myself. However, I think this actually is the real scandal exposed by Wikileaks: there is a fairly large circle of “insiders,” which include much of punditry and journalists, who have a fairly accurate picture of most issues, who nonetheless cooperate with, and in fact, make possible, the efforts of modern states to portray themselves as making decisions dictated by pure motives and high-minded principles rather than by power and interests. In my view, the potential impact of Wikileaks and similar efforts is not necessarily about leaking well-guarded secrets, which these were not; rather, it is about changing the audience for a particular discourse from insiders to outsiders. Rather than expose unknowns, I think it is more accurate to say that Wikileaks has collapsed the distinction between the “front” and “back stages” of the modern state, and exposed the gap between the day-to-day reality of modern statecraft and its civic front.

Let’s start with dispelling the notions that these cables were well-guarded secrets. On the contrary, they had already been available to about three million U.S. citizens from all walks of life including relatively low-level members of the military and hundreds of thousands of contractors––indeed, the leaker is believed to be PFC Bradley Manning, who was 19 years old at the time he leaked these materials. It is hard for me to believe that all motivated players in the world scene have not already had access to these cables through cajoling, bribing, seducing, misguiding, blackmailing, threatening, hacking, forcing or otherwise convincing someone to do what Manning did as a teenager––burn a CD with the whole bunch. (The widespread availability of this data was a somewhat deliberate policy after 9/11 to encourage sharing of information.) I also doubt that we will see too many names of, say, dissidents or informants, as I hope that U.S. diplomats had the sense not to put names in cables that were available to millions of people. The diplomats know they are writing for a fairly large audience; this shows in the care in their rhetoric and writing style, as in the already infamous account of the Wedding in Dagestan, which might become the Balinese Cockfight of Diplomacy.  Besides, since China and Russia know what deals they have made with U.S. diplomats, this is a bit like the British classifying the reports of the weather in Germany during World War II––as Walter Cronkite famously pointed out, the Germans presumably knew the weather in Germany. Thus, the latest uproar is not about secrets but about intended audiences.

Legal scholars have a term for information that is essentially accessible but not necessarily easily available: “practical obscurity.” For example, court records have long been public in the United States but in the past you had to haul yourself to the courtroom to do a search––something you would likely only do if you were truly motivated. Now, a few clicks will deliver all the information about anyone’s criminal record. That is indeed a game-changer. It is not that the information was secret and now it became public; rather, it was “practically obscure” but now it is easily available. A shift in audiences is always of major consequence—indeed, that is at the heart of the commotion caused by Facebook and Google Buzz in its first inception

The concept of the “front” and “back” stages has been most famously applied to the construction of personhood by sociologist Erving Goffman. Noting, for example, that a waiter presents himself a certain way in the front of a restaurant, when serving customers, and acts a very different way back in the kitchen (and might even spit in your food), he analogized this to a play, where an actor plays a role for the audience in the “front stage” and is “himself” in the “back stage.” As he notes, in a sense, there is no real back stage, only a series of different front stages where we construct ourselves for different audiences. Goffman also points out that a crucial part of your self-presentation in a given “front stage” is the active participation and affirmation of the relevant audience, all of whom are simultaneously presenting themselves and likewise expecting your affirmation. All of you are, in a sense, and at least in part for instrumental reasons, agreeing to treat a certain constructed presentation of self as genuine.

This does not mean that our  “performances” of who we are are mere cynical pretense; our different social roles are simply attached to different norms and habits. And who we are, in turn, is not something we can affirm by fiat. It is only through the active participation of relevant audiences who act towards us as if we are who we say and perform we are, do we actually become who we are in the social sense.

A claim for identity is also a moral claim in that our front stages (which vary according to audiences) and back stage (where we have no audiences) can only differ so much before others withdraw their recognition and participation. In other words, we all recognize that people do not behave the same way with their moms as they do with their peers, but, say, the claim to be an honest and upright elected official while embezzling taxpayer funds and breaking major laws will cause one audience to withdraw their affirmation of your identity as a respectable, honest person. The presentation of oneself as a particular person is a moral claim because it demands that one be treated –and honored– in a particular manner; hence there is an inevitable tension between performance and authenticity which can only stretch so far before breaking.

Thus, my public self as a professor in front of a classroom requires that all my students in the classroom not only acquiesce to this but that they participate by performing their own role as students which in turn affirms mine. States (and journalists and pundits) are also making moral claims upon us every time they assert in public what they are about, and, crucially, every time they keep a fact from the public. I don’t disagree that certain types of diplomacy are best done away from the public eye: putting a lid on otherwise inflammatory material that might cause violence or civil strife or hammering out the details of a disarmament deal away from warmongering eyes sound like good ideas to me. I do not think “all transparency all the time” is a good idea. However, in the end, the right to keep secrets is bestowed upon states with the understanding that it will only be done so as necessary and in a justifiable manner. Unlike a person, the state does not have an inherent right to a “back stage” beyond that which is directly justifiable and accountable. Modern practice, however, has been to keep things hidden from the public to protect the state from scrutiny and debate – and this has happened with the participation and acquiescence of much of modern punditry who have become used to the insider/outsider game. The latest batch of releases is a direct challenge to this corrupted separation.

So the multiple pronouncements by many pundits that there is nothing shocking here actually expose the heart of the issue: the jaded insider game of hypocrisy and cynicism involves much of the established media and punditry. Most diplomats and journalists already know, for example, that the U.S. has been spying on United Nations officials––this had actually been exposed but received fairly little media attention, certainly less than Dancing with the Stars. Most “insiders” know how the game is played. That nations go to war for interests and resources. That, around the world, the U.S. is not seen as a pure purveyor of democracy. That lobbyists dominate policy-making. That there is a scientific consensus around global warming and that almost all the dissent is financed through the oil-coal interests. That big nations often try to use multinational institutions to advance their own narrow agendas under the cloak of high ideals.  That many politicians are corrupt, ignorant and self-interested. But most of this is rarely discussed in an open and serious manner.

There are many other issues that Wikileaks raises (such as the consequences of the corporatization of our social commons, which I had previously written about) and the relationship between the relatively open and distributed nature of Internet’s infrastructure and its ability to support a dissident public sphere (DDoS attacks cut both ways and I believe that they are counterproductive as they derail the conversation away from the real topic, transparency and accountability of the modern state, into trivial questions). However, I believe that Wikileaks also points to the way forward for civic journalism to survive as a relevant force — by first becoming an outsider to power. Without major newspapers’ role in acting as active intermediaries in focusing public attention to the revelations in these cables, these would likely get lost in a sea of confusion and clutter.

Indeed, given that there are legitimate reasons not to publish certain kinds of information, and given that a lot of information does not make sense without relevant context, and given that it would be impossible for an ordinary person to sift through hundreds of thousands of documents to find or understand the important ones, it is obviously important that the public sphere retain an intermediary between “leaks” and “publication.” If the fourth estate can stop being a semi-voluntary hostage to powerful interests, it may find that that it can not only survive, but thrive, in a world where information may be free but attention and understanding remain scarce.