A Novel in Three Links

This + this + this = an opportunity to change the way we communicate, and to change history as well.

The freedom that we experienced on the Internet of the ’90s is waning. Governments and commercial interests take ever-increasing steps to circumscribe people’s ability to communicate digitally. The only way to change this tide from ebb to flood is to fulfill a promise that was first made in the ’90s.

We need to disintermediate the network. It’s an ugly duckling of a word, but cutting out the middle man matters more now than ever.

As long as the cables, wires and frequencies over which we communicate are susceptible to being controlled, curtailed or even disconnected when the things we say -or the way we say them- become upsetting, we will find ourselves increasingly confined.

As I said during an Internet policy session yesterday, if you ask anyone –anyone– whether there should be limits on Behaviour X on the Internet, the answer will always be a resounding Yes. That’s not a problem in and of itself, because X is usually anti-social and contrary to the public good. The problem is that anything capable of curtailing Behaviour X can be brought to bear on Behaviours A through W as well.

The only way out of this is to provide the technical means to do what we have always done in democratic societies: Keep our private discussions private and our public discussions free.

For the former we at last have all the ingredients we need:

  1. Gigabit wifi – We can finally start thinking about getting decent performance out of wireless data transmission, meaning that we can worry a little less about putting a lot of people onto a single wifi network;
  2. Wireless Mesh Networks – Enough with the telcos; we can now start looking at creating ad hoc, self-organising networks, relegating the role of the data carriers to one similar to power and water utilities;
  3. Secure Voice Communications – Security expert Moxie Marlinspike (yeah) and a crew of like-minded individuals have floated a very useful service recently, allowing secure VOIP and SMS communications between phones. By building encryption into the bones of the app, they’ve created software that looks and acts exactly like normal calling and texting. The only difference being that, if the other person is using their RedPhone service, the entire communication remains a secret shared only by the two of you.

The idea behind these things have been floating around for some time (the protocol underlying RedPhone has been with us since 2006), but now they’re all here in usable form.

I’ve said it before: The story of freedom of Internet freedom and online privacy will be the defining social conflict of our generation. As the peoples of the Middle East are discovering, the narrative of freedom is suspenseful, dramatic and exciting in the best and worst ways.

Whoever manages to blend these three technologies together seamlessly and easily enough for anyone to use them will assuredly be one of the main protagonists in this unfolding drama. They may not garner the celebrity of a Jobs or a Gates, but they will have the impact of a Gandhi or a King.

The Internet ≠ the Network

Douglas Rushkoff just posted a piece with which I largely agree, but which indulges in some remarkably lazy language in the process:

“Some of us might like to believe that the genie is out of the bottle and that we all have access to an unstoppable decentralized network. In reality, the internet is entirely controlled by central authorities.”

Arrgh! This kind of thing drives me crazy. If we could stop conflating the Internet (which is a combination of networking protocols) and the physical network (which is a bunch of cables and antennas and switches), we might be able to have a useful dialogue about how to reduce the Internet’s vulnerability to coercive measures by changing the shape of the network.

In the end, that’s what Rushkoff advocates; I just wish he wouldn’t muddy the water so.

Stay with me, kids; I’m going to say this again slowly: The network is the wires and antennas and stuff. The Internet is the way information is organised to travel across it.

More to the point, the Internet is a very specific way for data to travel across it:

  • It doesn’t rely on a middle-man. I might choose to use Facebook for chat, but I don’t have to. I could connect straight to your computer or phone and chat away.
  • It doesn’t need a road map. In effect, the data packets just go hitch-hiking across the network with a sign saying ‘San José’ – or whatever.
  • It doesn’t see borders the same way some other network protocols do. In fact, that’s why it’s an Inter net: Because it routes traffic between different networks.

Once more:

  • Internet = you & me talking.
  • Network = the road system that allows you and me to get together to talk.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Oh, as long as I’m being pedantic: It’s Internet-with-a-capital-I. It’s a proper noun referring to a very specific thing. It’s like a country with all the geography taken out. It still has to have a capital.

Infowar – A Case Study

[This weekend’s Opinion column in the Daily Post]

The recent decision by the Mubarak regime in Egypt to cut off all Internet access for its citizens is a textbook example of using a silver bullet to shoot oneself in the foot.

The whys and wherefores of how they’ve gone about doing so provide a useful opportunity to understand the paradox of control over the Internet and the costs involved when governments and other actors indulge their desire to dam the torrent of information that flows across their networks.

In order to do that, we need to dispel a rather pesky myth.

Perhaps the most dangerous misconception of the Internet is its survivability. It’s true that, as one information activist put it, the Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it. But that statement is predicated on the actual presence of an Internet in the first place.

That may sound like a silly statement, but the Internet might not be as enduring as many assume it to be.

While many of the software and communications protocols that define the Internet are, by design, remarkably resistant to outside control, the physical networks through which our data passes are not nearly so robust.

James Cowie, a network analyst from Renesys Corporation, has written excellent analyses of state intervention in national communications both during the post-election strife in Iran and more recently in Egypt. Using forensic evidence gathered in real time, he constructs a vivid scenario: In contrast to Iranian authorities, who elected to use physical choke-points in the communications infrastructure to reduce the flow of information to a trickle, Egyptian authorities appear to have instructed all national Internet Service Providers simply to cut all communications with the outside world.

Starting at midnight (Egyptian time) on the 27th of January 2011, Egypt’s largest ISPs began disappearing from the Internet. Within a period of about 13 minutes, they simply stopped delivering data to and from their customers.

Cowie writes:

“[T]his sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced.”

How did this happen? Every large ISP participates in a cooperative system called the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP. BGP allows them to discover how traffic destined to a remote network should be directed. Simply put, each ISP announces which address blocks it supports. These blocks can represent tens or even hundreds of thousands of individual machine addresses.

Designed for simpler times, BGP is a trust-based protocol. It relies implicitly of the good faith of all participants to continue working. This makes it remarkably vulnerable to the machinations of states or organisations whose interests don’t align with others’. Back in 2008, Pakistan Telecom caused a furore when, for a little over 2 hours, their bungled attempt to use BGP to block YouTube domestically resulted in the site disappearing from much of the Internet.

Just last year, a change to BGP traffic announcements resulted in about 15% of all Internet traffic being routed through networks in China for a brief period. This resulted in breathless speculation that the disruption was not accidental. Some claimed that it amounted to a reconnaissance in force, as it were, a probing of the global Internet to determine its resilience in the face of attack.

Intentional or not, these disruptions to the BGP apparatus make it abundantly clear that choke points exist on the Internet and that they are remarkably easy to subvert.

Debate continues to rage in technical circles about what can be done to mitigate BGP’s innate deficiencies. Changes will doubtless be necessary. But the liability wouldn’t be so grave if our physical communications networks weren’t so hopelessly centralised.

Egypt offers us a particularly vivid example of this. A country of over 80 million people, it has only a half a dozen or so large Internet providers. Only one of them, the Noor Group, initially resisted the demand to drop services. Some have speculated that its continued online presence was due to its extensive list of blue chip clients, including many banks and the Egyptian Stock Exchange.

Ultimately, though, it was a limited victory. Noor advertised only 83 of the roughly 3500 data routes in and out of Egypt. They were eventually forced off the air a week after their IT confrères.

In Iran, population 72 million, there are only 5 significant international links, all of which flow through a single Government-run office. Such centralisation makes it easy for the state to exert its influence.

(One European-owned company, Vodaphone, washed its hands of the decision to cut service to its Egyptian customers, claiming that the Mubarak regime had the legal right to issue the order. This rhetorical line apes the rationale provided by Nokia-Siemens when it was discovered that their equipment enabled Iranian authorities to block most traffic and eavesdrop on the rest.)

The Internet as a principle –that is, the idea of an open network allowing free communication regardless of source or sender– is not as popular as some might believe. It made its way into the commercial world more by stealth than by deliberation. Telcos didn’t really understand the Internet as a service; they just knew they had to offer it in order to compete.

One thing was clear to them: The sum of all services across a global network was clearly more valuable than those offered by a single provider. Equally attractive was the perception that these services came more or less for free with the connection.

But the seductive power of the Net hasn’t changed attitudes entirely.

Telecommunications companies, with a long legacy of market-controlling behaviour, still build and deploy their infrastructure using centralised models. Recently, some of them have begun lobbying for the right to exert control over the data that passes over their networks, potentially penalising services that compete with their own. Comcast, one of the largest ISPs in the US, recently got approval to acquire NBC Universal and its content-creation ecosystem, giving rise to fears that they might leverage their control over the information pipeline to dictate what passes through it.

Put simply, carriers would love nothing better than to go back to the telephone service model, where fees are based on where you are and who you talk to, with no conversation possible unless you’ve paid your toll.

The principle of an end-to-end network –that is, one that allows direct, unmediated connections between two parties– militates strongly in the opposite direction. Its appeal is remarkably seductive, leading most Internet users to view with displeasure the telcos’ (or governments’) desire to mediate communications.

Renesys quite rightly remarks that if cuts to Egypt’s Internet had lasted much longer, the reduction in commercial activity could have been catastrophic for the nation.

Furthermore, Cowie remarks, it wasn’t only Egypt’s pipelines that were at risk:

“[T]he majority of Internet connectivity between Europe and Asia actually passes through Egypt. The Gulf States, in particular, depend critically on the Egyptian fiber-optic corridor for their connectivity to world markets.

“Are the folks at Davos thinking about this? They should be.”

In a perfect world, consumer choice and basic business commonsense would always win. But the problem is that centralised networks not only cost a lot of money (placing their design and construction into the hands of the most powerful), they make a lot of money, too.

In monetary and political terms, the wealth of the network itself tends to pool rather than to flow.

A fundamental change has already overtaken the public’s perception about the value and nature of digital communications. Passive consumption of news through the television is considered passé, or at least diminished in relation to the sharing of photos, videos and words across the Internet.

As individual control over the flow of information rises, central control wanes. And this, obviously, is the crux of the dilemma facing businesses and governments across North Africa and throughout the world. They are belatedly coming to realise that they are fighting a many-headed hydra. As they cut off one avenue of communication, another rears its head.

But that hydra has a body, and the body is the network itself.

As this column goes to press, it appears that Egypt’s decision to cut off the Internet failed in every important regard. One protester is reported to have said, “F*** the internet! I have not seen it since Thursday and I am not missing it.… Go tell Mubarak that the people’s revolution does not need his damn internet!

I would be amazed, however, if this fact led other governments to act differently, should they find themselves in a similar situation. Indeed, the US Congress is currently considering legislation that would provide the President with an ‘Internet Kill Switch’ for use in case of emergency.

Likewise, I see no evidence that the ultimate futility of attempting to control the flow of information will change attitudes in the board rooms and offices where our increasingly centralised networks are planned. For telcos, the challenge is merely technical.

For the Internet –as it was originally intended– to become fully realised and fully resistant to coercion, the devices and infrastructure through which our data travels will need to reflect the same principle of decentralisation as the software and protocols we use today. That implies the construction of communications devices that are very different from the locked-in, network-centric phones, tablets and computers we’re familiar with. I can think of no short-term scenario in which the development of such products will take place in any significant way.

For some time to come, we will continue to live in a world in which the powerful continue to load silver bullets and take aim squarely at their own feet.

Pavlov's Light Bulb

In a discussion about using small frequency changes in LED light bulbs to transmit data, someone mentioned that companies are already using this technology in supermarkets and other large stores to dynamically change prices on their products.

Which led me to a little though experiment: What if retailers could change the price of a product spontaneously for each shopper? What if they did away with even the pretense of fixed prices and rewarded certain kinds of shopping behaviour in order to guarantee allegiance to their store?

  • First-time shopper gets ridiculous discounts (maybe even a few freebies) as an enticement;
  • Long-time shoppers get small but consistent discounts on selected items;
  • One shopper is publicly penalised with higher prices – retailers (ab)use fear of scapegoating to keep shoppers in line;
  • Shoppers induced to say or do things they would not normally in order to qualify for perks.

I think there’s a cute but fundamentally plausible (and scary) short story in there….

My Privacy, Your Secrecy

In the years to come, it’s possible that historians will place the battle over privacy alongside the universal suffrage and civil rights movements as one of the core social conflicts in recent history.

On one side of the issue is a definition of privacy closely linked to individual freedom and the right to protect oneself from scrutiny by the state. Fundamentally, it can be expressed as follows: “As long as no one gets hurt, what I think, say or do is nobody’s business but my own.” Essentially, it posits that you don’t have the right to know certain things about me and vice versa.

At the other end of the continuum is the contention that people have no expectation of privacy in public places. And the digital world is a very public place.

To make matters worse, many state and non-state actors deny that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. While they have no qualms about using the vastly more powerful surveillance capabilities that modern technology affords them, when the same tools are applied to their own secrets they call it calumny, espionage and even treason.

There are two things wrong with this argument for privacy: The first is that it imagines, paradoxically, that a legal privacy framework will be enforceable without transparency. Second, it imagines that society actually wants privacy for everyone.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Those who conceive of the battle over privacy as a Manichean struggle between individual privacy and universal surveillance are missing a fundamental fact. We are becoming a society without walls. With few exceptions, electronic data has become cheaply, nearly infinitely copyable. Steps can be taken to make it more difficult to do, but it only needs to be copied once.

The immediate problem we face, however, is unequal access to data.

If recent experience has taught us anything, it is this: Anyone in control of the flow of information inevitably leverages that control to view and manipulate the data crossing their wires.

Google is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Their stock in trade is the fact that they can see virtually everything you do and say on the Net. They use that insight to send you advertisements as well as to refine their services, giving them still greater abilities where behavioural analysis is concerned. To their credit, they credibly argue that their data mining is mostly automated. In other words, no human actually sees what you’re up to, and the computer algorithms that do watch you don’t judge you in any way. They have gone to court and even walked away from entire markets rather than divulge information about specific individuals to governments.

This is almost certainly due to the influence of founder Sergei Brin, who spent his early childhood growing up in the surveillance society that was the Soviet Union. One can only shudder when considering what will happen to personal privacy when, inevitably, he and co-founder Larry Page (also a strong defender of civil liberties) hand over the reins to their vastly powerful data store.

Google’s restraint is, however, the exception rather than the rule. Other commercial data mining operations –Facebook, for example– are not nearly as reluctant to trade in personal information. With sufficient effort, you can find out vastly more about any individual with an active online life than they would willingly divulge to you face to face.

Among the most powerful data mining operations in the world is the US intelligence establishment. The National Security Agency almost certainly monitors all information crossing US communications networks, and a great many more besides. The fact that, to date, they have contented themselves with mere eavesdropping is cold comfort.

Modern computing capabilities are such that, with sufficient resources, organisations could quite literally store details about every email, telephone conversation, text message, Facebook update and social network linkage for every single citizen on the Net. And to the extent that they can, they do.

But technology is (more or less) an equal opportunity tool. Author Bruce Sterling, in a superb essay on the WikiLeaks debacle, observes that there’s really not a lot of daylight between the spooks at the NSA and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange:

“The geeks who man the NSA don’t look much like Julian Assange, because they have college degrees, shorter haircuts, better health insurance and far fewer stamps in their passports. But the sources of their power are pretty much identical to his. They use computers and they get their mitts on info that doesn’t much wanna be free.”

And here we arrive at the second major flaw in treating privacy as just another article in a notional Bill of Rights: As much as we might value our own privacy, we don’t value that of others.

My privacy is your secrecy.

We respect a private person; we get suspicious if they’re secretive. We’re all big fans of transparency until it affects our own ability to get things done. We’ll say the most scandalous things about others, right up to the moment when we realise they might hear. When someone else, however, repeats those same scurrilous details in public, we are delighted. As long as they don’t implicate us, that is.

The immense relief you feel when someone stands up at a gathering and says the uncomfortable thing you’ve been thinking evaporates when they turn to you and say, “And I know you’ll agree with me on this.”

Viewed in this light, there’s nothing surprising at all about the US Department of State sponsoring an Open Internet policy and at the same time calling for the extra-legal suppression of the release of their own cables. That the vast majority of these missives are little more than embarrassing is barely germane. The fact is, someone’s told tales out of school, so they can’t be friends any more. There’s hardly a person in the world who would act differently.

That’s going to change.

In an interview with New York Magazine, Author William Gibson argues that technology, not culture, is in the driver’s seat now. Technology “is not only what we do, it’s literally who we are as a species. We’ve become something other than what our ancestors were.

It’s closer to the truth to say that technology and culture are inextricably entwined. In any case, the plain fact is that secrets, as we in the West know them, are dead. If you record your thoughts or actions –and in this increasingly digital world, you inevitably do– they will be copied. And if they are copied once, they can be copied infinitely. The only limitation on this is human interest.

This is going to force some very uncomfortable compromises. Scientist and author David Brin has taken the rather unpopular stance that the answer to this unprecedented assault on privacy is more openness, not less:

“Instead of trying to blind the mighty –a futile goal, if ever there was one– we have emphasized the power of openness, giving free citizens knowledge and unprecedented ability to hold elites accountable. Every day, we prove it works, rambunctiously demanding to know, rather than trying to stop others from knowing.”

In essence, Brin is arguing for a return to village life, but for everyone, not just individuals. Companies, governments, organisations of all kinds who trade in data, should become subject to precisely the same scrutiny they impose on everyone else.

Secrecy, in other words, will be replaced by confidentiality, an unwritten social contract not to penalise people for exposing their own human foibles, provided they don’t harm others.

It’s a nice idea, and if Vanuatu society’s ability to make scandal and impropriety public without (necessarily) using it as a scourge is any indication, it could even be made to work. But it works in Vanuatu because there’s no alternative. The moment someone has the ability to evade the watchful eyes of the community, you can bet your boots they’ll do so.

Constant scrutiny is at the core of this dynamic.

The way the Internet is shaped these days, individual privacy is vastly disadvantaged relative to state and corporate secrecy. This imbalance will only be perpetuated unless the physical networks through which our data runs are restructured. As things stand right now, virtually all of our communications pass through an increasingly limited number of physical cables, websites and service providers.

If we learn nothing else from the repressive measures imposed on free speech on the Internet, it is that ownership of the means of transmission matters more than anything else. If a government or corporation has enough leverage over a significant portion of the communications network, they can define exactly how it behaves.

In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, New York University professor Clay Shirky recounts how attempts by the Philippine Congress to co-opt the 2001 impeachment of then-President Joseph Estrada were subverted by a spontaneously organised protest, largely catalysed by a text message saying, “Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.” (EDSA is Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major intersection in Manila.) Within two days, over a million black-shirted people had congregated.

The government was caught flat-footed and fell as a result.

He then describes how attempts by the Iranian Green Movement to replicate this kind of effect were quickly trumped by the government’s ability to monitor mobile and Internet traffic and to reduce it to a trickle at critical junctures. This aided them significantly in the subsequent crackdown and wholesale imprisonment of dissident activists.

The victory came at significant cost to the credibility of the state, but in the short term, the state prevailed.

The tension between privacy and secrecy is becoming increasingly lop-sided. The only comfort we can take is that even if the physical networks are increasingly centralised and therefore pulling in the direction of secrecy, the communications protocols that run across these wires are still what we call end-to-end. In other words, they allow us (or rather, our computers, smart phones, etc.) to speak directly to each other.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the ability to communicate one-to-one militates strongly in favour of openness. Because we are the ones choosing to communicate, the network transmits only what we freely share. Above all else, we love to share what we know about others. Now, this phenomenon needs to be leavened by an awareness that the rest of the online world is within earshot. If we say something sufficiently embarrassing, be it about ourselves or someone else, the world will quickly know we said it.

Following the massive breach of diplomatic secrecy perpetrated by WikiLeaks, international relations have already seen a fundamental change in perspective. The banner of Transparency has been lowered from the ramparts. Many state and non-state actors are moving quickly to reshape the world into something they are more comfortable with, one in which a culture of secrecy prevails once more.

Odds are, they will eventually lose this ground. Just as resistance to market forces has ultimately proven futile in the global economy, those who fight openness with increasingly centralised control are working at a disadvantage to those who are willing to be more opportunistic, flexible and accepting of the opportunities that better access to information give them.

The battle –and make no mistake, this is a battle– is far from over. I sympathise with Bruce Sterling when he expresses a rather melancholic, depressed response to this first open conflict between secrecy and the transparency of the network:

“[Assange is] a different, modern type of serious troublemaker. He’s certainly not a “terrorist,” because nobody is scared and no one got injured. He’s not a “spy,” because nobody spies by revealing the doings of a government to its own civil population. He is orthogonal. He’s asymmetrical. He panics people in power and he makes them look stupid. And I feel sorry for them. But sorrier for the rest of us.”

There is a new, defining conflict in the world. Technology’s assault on secrecy will succeed just as surely as it has on our privacy. There are only two ways to come to terms with Wikileaks and its successors: Repression or negotiation. Repression is not a long-term viable option, because the costs are always greater than the benefits for the majority. A totalitarian crackdown lasting generations is possible, but unlikely. And with anything less than that, there will inevitably be a correction in the direction of openness.

Negotiation requires a state of uncomfortable, shifting compromise in which we establish new cultural tabus based on each party’s knowledge of the other. It’s almost Victorian in its essence: We retain a pretence of propriety and respect; I don’t reveal your more awkward secrets so that you won’t reveal mine.

This is an awkward and innately unfair scenario, because disparities in wealth (i.e. knowledge) will almost certainly bring about the same injustices as we see in unbridled capitalism. Only concerted social opprobrium will keep bad actors at bay.

Societies will certainly go through convulsions coming to terms with this new détente. But we will inevitably do so. Like it or not, technology makes us what we are.

No matter what the outcome, I worry about the cost.

That Cargo Cult Lie Again

In an otherwise excellent defence of Mathematics as a fundamental component of a liberal education, professor Robert Lewis of Fordham University once again draws on the old South Pacific cargo cult chestnut to illustrate Bad Thinking about Mathematics:

The story may seem sad, amusing, or pathetic, but what does that have to do with mathematics education? Unfortunately a great deal. The south Pacific natives were unable to discern between the superficial outer appearence of what was happening and the deeper reality.

How… interesting. Obviously these primitives suffered from some sort of cognitive dysfunction never, ever experienced by enlightened Westerners who never, ever engaged in pageantry, idolatry or mimicry in their lives. I guess it’s patently obvious that more advanced, educated people of a noticeably paler complexion never argued for the literal truth of artifacts that were always intended to be symbolic.

I’m going to take a deep breath now….

Okay, look: I’m no anthropologist, but I don’t think it requires more than a few moments of reflection to realise that cargo cults, while appearing novel and unique on the surface, are little more than ritualised re-enactments of a time of plenty and the invocation of a desire to return of wealth.

And -it’s shocking, I admit- there exists a remote possibility that the people partaking in this pageantry are aware of this.

The popular belief that Manaro, the god of Ambae’s volcano, departed to the US with the Americans hardly stretches credulity. It can be understood as a metaphor for the realisation that the power exerted by the Americans in their brief sojourn on neighbouring Santo was so out of scale with local kastom that it in effect kidnapped the old gods. The conclusion of this story, by the way, is that someone needs to go to the US and get him back in order to restore order. I suspect the modern word for this heroic adventurer is ‘entrepreneur‘.

The John Frum cults in Tanna do spend a lot of time and effort in their pageantry. But not significantly more than that expended in Little Italies across North America, where the cult of the Mother still thrives.

Even the Prince Philip cult (again in Tanna) is perfectly comprehensible: If the villagers demonstrate consistent faith and support by conferring the highest imaginable honour upon the most powerful person they’ve ever met, they might continue to enjoy his patronage. Read this way, you could even argue that Philip’s deification is some pretty calculated (and, if you watch the BBC, effective) flattery of the recipient.

Most important of all, though, people tend to forget that cargo cults often work:

We are all creatures of ritual. We all, to some degree or other, associate results with the gestures that precipitate them, rather than with the actions themselves. And more often than not, this modus operandi works just fine.

I’m not arguing for the fundamental validity of the logic underlying cargo cults; but just once in a while, I wish that people would look at them and see themselves.

It’s regrettable than even an eminent professor of mathematics would fall victim to the very thing he decries: the inability “to discern between the superficial outer appearence [sic] of what was happening and the deeper reality.”


[Updated slightly to fix the facts around the policy more accurately reflect reality.]

Jillian York, in her rather timid defense of WikiLeaks, states that she[*] some people ‘got off the bus’, metaphorically speaking, shortly after the release of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. Describing her personal ambivalence about the latest leak, she draws a distinction between what she characterises as WikiLeaks’ ‘firehose’ approach and conventional journalism.

But to accept that distinction, we have to ignore what happens when we back up a little from our current context and ask: what, exactly, is journalism? I think we can accept that, essentially, it is a means (until recently, our primary means) of obtaining verifiable and ostensibly reliable information about the world around us. The fact that it has become formalised -indeed, institutionalised- is a collateral feature. It does not follow that its formalisation via a collection of ethical practices is necessary to the provision of information. Journalistic ethics, in other words, are very much defined by their context and indeed their application.

As the Judith Miller debacle showed us, unconditional protection of anonymous sources can prove detrimental to the integrity of the craft. Neither selective leaks nor ‘access’ to anonymous sources are sufficient to healthy reporting. Truth, ultimately, is the only reliable measure of the effectiveness of a particular news source. It goes without saying that truth is an increasingly adulterated alloy in popular news reporting these days. It’s not even sufficient to speak nothing but truth; one must, somehow, find a way to tell all the truth that pertains to a particular subject.

WikiLeaks, for better or for worse, represents the logical conclusion of this train of reasoning. I’m open to arguments that it is actually an over-correction, but I don’t feel I’ll be moved without reference to particular details. And that requires access to sufficient information; in short, you can only make that argument retrospectively.

You can see where I’m going with this….

I’m not arguing that complete access to all information is the only true form of journalism. I’m suggesting that making a distinction between WikiLeaks and ‘journalism’ as we understand the word does not describe the process; it describes the actors.

[*] Reading comprehension FAIL on my part. I mistakenly elided the first two letters of ‘some’, changing the meaning fundamentally. Jillian was kind enough to call this mistake to my attention.

‘Nother update: I just re-read this sentence:

Neither selective leaks nor ‘access’ to anonymous sources are sufficient to healthy reporting.

I’m tempted to be a even more provocative and to ask whether they are even necessary to healthy reporting.

As a gendakenexperiment, I wonder what the journalistic craft would look like if secrets of all kinds were tabu.

As students of the Englightenment, most of us immediately shy away from the thought of an environment in which individual privacy is nearly absent. But having lived on the edges of Vanuatu village culture for the last seven years, I can attest to the fact that there are indeed ways to accommodate oneself to a world more akin to what David Brin describes than the ideal world of a doctrinaire libertarian.

Individual privacy is not as axiomatic as many in the West tend to assume….

What Necessity?

[This column appeared in today’s Vanuatu Daily Post]

The week before last, Vanuatu witnessed an unprecedented event in its political history. Parliamentary Speaker George Wells instructed the members of the Police and the Vanuatu Mobile Force to bar all members of the public and the press from entering Parliamentary precincts.

Then, with no one but the MPs themselves to witness, the government changed.

We are told that a vote was held on a pending no-confidence motion. We are told that certain members of the Government crossed the aisle to vote with the Opposition. But we don’t know precisely what happened, what words were spoken and what actions were taken to ensure this outcome.

Were Police or soldiers present inside Parliament as well as outside? Were any threats, implicit or explicit, made to Members before the vote? Were any blandishments or other incentives offered?

I’m not suggesting any of these things took place. I’m suggesting that they could have, and we would never know. Anything could have happened during that session, and unless we find some way of getting corroborated evidence of what did happen, a question mark will always lie over the proceeding.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a United Nations organisation that works to strengthen democracies worldwide, lists five key attributes of a healthy democracy:

It is representative; it is accessible; it is accountable; it is effective. And it is transparent.

Without transparency, none of the other attributes are measurable.

Secrecy runs counter to kastom as well. It is frankly unimaginable that any change in the customary power structure could take place beyond the view of the people.

Arguably, MP Wells had the legal authority to clear the public and the press from Parliament. Whether he had the moral right to do so is not so easy to determine.

While the Constitution clearly states that the proceedings of Parliament are to be public, it leaves room for extraordinary circumstances. The Standing Orders of Parliament, the rules by which the Speaker is legally bound, state, ‘The Speaker may order the withdrawal of visitors [from Parliament] in special circumstances.’

The Orders further state that, ‘In exercising his duties, the Speaker may request assistance from officers of Parliament or if necessary, members of the Police Force.’

‘… If Necessary….’

So, MP Wells need only explain what ‘special circumstances’ required that Parliament be barred to the public in order to reassure the citizens of Vanuatu that he acted legally.

And then, of course, he would have to lay out the reasons why the use of Police was necessary. The Standing Orders only allow the use of Police ‘if necessary.’ Any reasonable definition of necessity requires the presence of an obvious and otherwise unavoidable circumstance. It should therefore be easy for MP Wells to explain what threat to public order existed that required the presence of armed soldiers at Parliament’s gates.

Was there danger of insurrection? A coup? Violent criminal activity? I’m not being facetious here; I’m genuinely asking. Mr. Wells obviously didn’t just decide out of the blue that these measures were necessary. I trust that he had his reasons.

I only ask that he share them.

It is critically important that the ex-Speaker justify his actions and demonstrate to the people of Vanuatu that he acted lawfully and with reason. If he does not, then the legality –and the legitimacy– of the vote is called into question. If the vote is called into question, then so too is the government.
That’s not something anyone wants.

This is not a trivial issue, a slip-up in a young democracy that’s just finding its feet. If indeed it is the case that the public and the press were barred for no good reason, then a terribly dangerous precedent will have been set that cannot be allowed to continue. It is anti-democratic, and it is anti-kastom.

The only thing that could excuse this behaviour is if MP Wells can demonstrate that he did not overstep.

By all accounts, nothing happened during the vote that had not happened before. This should not make us complacent. It should have the opposite effect.

If indeed, the threat of force was used to bar the public and press from a session of Parliament in which a change of government took place, and there was no compelling reason for this action, then Vanuatu’s politicians, no matter how inspired or high-minded their intentions, have led the country away from its roots.

Transparency is not just the name of a local political gadfly. It is a real thing. It is crucial to the country’s well-being. And it is not possible to like it on Monday, ignore it on a Tuesday and promise to be back Wednesday.

As the recent WikiLeaks controversy has shown us, a shining light can be discomforting, even embarrassing at times. It can actually make it more difficult to get things done. But –and here’s the key– it makes it more difficult for us to do wrong, too.

Newly-minted Prime Minister Sato Kilman has already voiced his reservations about the measures taken by the Speaker. That is commendable. He should introduce changes to the Standing Orders in the next sitting of Parliament to ensure that if these rules are ever again invoked, they will not be applied frivolously and with little cause.

Push and Pull

A little note about the dynamic between WikiLeaks and the 5 newspapers they’re collaborating with:

Freedom of Information advocates have been commending WikiLeaks for the decision to defer the vetting and publication of individual cables to experienced, seasoned journalists.

No argument there.

But what about WikiLeaks’ effect on these newspapers? Surely there’s some awareness -and likely trepidation- among editorial staff that WikiLeaks might become impatient or angry if the papers either published the cables too slowly, at too low a profile or if they were found to be eliding uncomfortable facts in their reporting? And surely Assange is aware of this. Whatever you may think of him, he is a very very clever boy (as are all the members of this organisation).

Strategically, WikiLeaks gains far more from this exchange than the newspapers. They garner badly-needed credibility, at the same time holding tremendous tactical leverage over highly regarded members of the popular media. Ultimately, the newspapers need WikiLeaks far more than WikiLeaks needs them.

Julian Assange’s designation as Editor In Chief is more apt than many realise….

UI Follies

Because using a longer, more verbose description in a heading is confusing and counter-intuitive. The purpose of larger, darker text is to highlight a single element. Ideally, this element is a word or a short phrase that thematically unites the contents which follow.

Why is this a bug?