Dr. C. Scott Ananian (cananian) wrote,
Dr. C. Scott Ananian

What's Wikileaks up to?

A recent article in the Economist points out that Wikileaks is not unique: modern network tools have made anonymous communication ubiquitous. You can't stop "wikileaks" by attacking Julian Assange alone. The article is incorrect, however, in claiming that anonymity is easy — in some sense anonymous leafleteers in Colonial America were better off. Bradley Manning currently sits in jail. Haystack was fundamentally flawed. There continues to be a role for organizations who desire to facilitate anonymous speech to identify and provide trustworthy and user-friendly tools and procedures.

Aaron Brady achieves a more fundamental insight by examining Julian Assange's aims. Assange's goal is to hobble "conspiracies", that is, the small cliques of power and secrecy embedded in most organizations, and he seeks to do this by causing them to fear information sharing. By this metric, Wikileaks seems to be succeeding. (Read Aaron Brady's essay for the details.)

But it's worth pausing to consider: are open organizations truly better? Is openness practically achievable? This is an organizational problem which was on the front burner at OLPC while I worked there: OLPC pledged an open development and governance model, but was continually charged with being closed, insular, and secretive in practice. We reorganized previously-internal mailing lists and pledged to conduct all important business on public archived lists. Yet there was continual backsliding. Sometimes private email was used merely to prevent embarrassment or confusion—to fact-check before making a public statement. Other times it was claimed that some measure of secret/private communication was a fundamental part of business or negotiation, necessary for interacting with external entities. In order to evaluate the latest components/plans/schedules of our partners, we had to sign NDAs. The secrecy requirements of the third-party then contaminated related discussions. In the end, even an organization with a goal of openness ended up embedding pockets of secrecy, which always threatened to grow and spread unless they were occasionally beaten back. Attempting to stand for open principles was often claimed to make OLPC "uncompetitive," as in: we couldn't hope to get the best deals/access to the latest components/whatever if we insisted on being open about everything.

The quest for openness in business seems to parallel the role of Wikileaks in national affairs. As with OLPC's business negotiations, we are being told that secrecy is an essential part of the diplomatic process, and that publishing internal cables hobbles America's ability to achieve its goals. The claim is that Wikileaks threatens to make America "uncompetitive."

Is this true? Openness is an ethical position, but not a black-and-white one. Very few people argued that OLPC (or America) should have no secrets — the debate was always "how many?" In practice if the desired answer was "as few as possible", there was always a Wikileaks-like need to continually drag private content to public forums in order to combat the creep of secrecy. Perhaps the same is true of governments.

Then again, over-reaching openness threatens individual privacy — where to draw the line? Must all our personal mistakes be made in public? Must all our national mistakes be made in public?

Tags: echelon, legal, olpc, security, wikileaks

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