[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….

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….

Culture of Secrecy

A culture of secrecy breeds power and the ability to act with impunity. Careerist elements within any government prefer secrecy because it allows them to forego the often tedious act of being accountable for even the smallest decision. It’s often justified as a Good Thing because the actors can circumvent bureaucratic red tape and work more efficiently. Ultimately, however, the end game is the same: A small elite minority within the permanent establishment begin to take privilege and influence for granted, and act independently of government policy.

This is not something unique to the US diplomatic corps. It happens in all organisations. And it is explicitly what freedom of information laws and regulations are designed to counteract. Absent this capability, it’s left to whistleblowers and WikiLeaks to serve in this role.

Viewed in this light, we have to conclude that the attacks on wikileaks are primarily driven not by the state, but by certain of its constituents who might lose the leverage that a culture of secrecy has given them. That’s why the counter-attack on WikiLeaks has been composed mostly of deft cuts at the the service’s underpinnings rather than overt state action. A quiet word here and there, and anyone hosting material even related to wikileaks goes offline. A whisper in the ear of an ambitious (or susceptible) Swedish prosecutor and a nuisance case becomes an international manhunt.

Secrecy and a scarcity of information are crucial to the continuation of the cronyism about which so many Americans complain. It astounds me how many of these same people who rail at the unhealthy, shadowy bonds between corporations, lobbyists and the government are now scandalised that an organisation like WikiLeaks is struggling to diminish the power of these linkages.

The China Market

On Saturday, the Guardian revealed fears by US officials that China was using its privileged access to the Microsoft Windows source code in order to prepare and launch attacks against certain targets. This fear appears to be justified, in light of the tactics used in the highly publicised attacks that led to Google’s withdrawal from China. The attacks, we are told, were initiated by the Chinese Politburo when one of its senior members googled himself (naughty!) and found material that was critical of him.

I confess feeling a bit of smug satisfaction when I say I Told You So. Microsoft’s drive to secure the co-called China market at any cost demonstrates perfectly the complete imbalance in power that most businesses face when attempting to gain a foothold in China.

Back in 2007, when reviewing the purported victory, I wrote:

With trademark deftness, China has largely de-fanged one of the most effective and brutal corporate negotiating teams in the world. This is the corporation that managed to buy off the US government and avoid any real punishment following its conviction for abuse of monopoly powers. It’s the company that has consistently and rather successfully thumbed its nose at the European Union, the largest economic entity in the world today. It has controlled standards processes, locked in countless corporations and ruthlessly dominated the supply chain world-wide.

Yet Chinese negotiators got everything they asked for. Price reductions? They pay about 10% of what other governments do per seat. Control? They not only have access to the source code, they have to right to alter it to suit their purposes.

Think about what that means to the Chinese. In economic, political and strategic terms, they’ve negotiated unprecedented access to an invaluable resource, and they’ve done it in a way that costs them next to nothing. Truth be told, Microsoft got almost nothing out of this deal. China still uses Linux whenever and wherever it wants.

It still astounds me that anyone thinks that the so-called China Market is anything other than what the Chinese regime decides it is at any given moment.

Sure, there’s a lot to be said for the beneficial effects of market forces. I won’t dispute that. The one thing people tend to forget is that, if push comes to shove -and it has in the past- the Chinese are capable of enduring unimaginable suffering to achieve a strategic goal. (Well, capable of allowing their citizens to endure unimaginable suffering, at any rate.) That willingness gives them the capability to impose any number of arbitrary conditions onto the economic environment.

Western governments don’t think of themselves as the owners of their respective economies. The Chinese do.

So when the likes of Cisco, Yahoo! and Microsoft betray every iota of principle (and expose a callously cavalier attitude toward strategic security issues) in pursuit of economic gain in China, I can only caution them that things only look manageable now because they’re not happening to you.


Open Source Diplomacy

[This column appeared in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

Say what you like about wikileaks and their recent dump of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables, but there is probably not a single researcher in International Relations, History or Political Science without a tingle in their pants today. Never in modern history has so much information been made available in such a readily accessible format. This is, for researchers, a gift that will keep on giving for decades to come.

The thing that impressed me most from my brief perusal of the 200-odd documents released on the first day was not so much the content as the quality of the analysis. The cables were well-written and obviously well-researched. I suspect that there’s more than one junior foreign officer out there with a quiet smile on their face today, because finally the world will see just how good they are.

Yes, I’m ignoring completely the ethics and morality of the situation. That horse is out of the barn, and incidentally, what a barn it is….

These cables will provide more insight and understanding into American diplomacy than anything else ever has. Just as access to hitherto proprietary source code sometimes unearths dirty secrets of which even its author is ashamed, there is likely to be a lot of unpleasantness to be found in the cables.

I think the longer term result, however, will be that much of what’s good about the US diplomatic corps (and there’s a lot of that) will assist countless others to improve their own work. In fact I think it’s likely there might be more than one diplomat that might actually be relieved to see the unspeakable spoken aloud. This torrent of data just might break more logjams than it creates.

The rise of the Free Software movement in the 1990s increased access to the source code that runs our computers and caused fundamental changes in software development. Their echoes are still quite strong today. Code that was once hidden behind thick corporate walls was now being handed about in a vast open source bazaar. This discomfited many vendors who were dismayed to discover that their crown jewels could become valueless overnight as software became commoditised.

A lot of dirty laundry got aired in the process. Bug-reports, software update schedules, coding practices all became subjects of open discussion and, yes, dispute. Tolerance for second-rate code dwindled significantly. Emphasis began to fall more and more on results. As one acerbic commenter wrote: “A single line of running code trumps a thousand lines of argument.”

Companies who attempted to retain their secretive ways were simply bypassed and their flaws exposed for all to see. Sound familiar?

In the late 1990s, Microsoft identified Linux specifically and Free Software generally as the greatest strategic threat to their organisation. They were right. Microsoft’s stagnation is partly attributable to the advantage that FOSS has given several of its competitors. IBM, Apple and Google have all leveraged open source software to jump-start various endeavours that compete directly with Microsoft. Likewise, Microsoft’s need to increase the pace of development resulted directly in their death-march to Windows Vista.

Just as Microsoft was able to drive Netscape Communications out of the market by commoditising the web browser, others are commoditising vast swathes of the computing industry by leveraging FOSS.

The commoditisation of information proceeds apace, and although the stakes are perceived to be higher in this case, the effects will probably be similar in nature. A fractious dialectic is already emerging between those who truly believe in the benefits of information resources like those circulated to millions of US military and government staffers on SIPRNET, and those who seek to leverage proprietary knowledge for their country’s -and sometimes their own- gain.

All secrets are like kindling. Used at the right time, gossip can provide warmth, build allegiance and influence. Used rashly, well… you know where this is heading. In that sense, wikileaks may seem like a 10 year old boy with a stolen box of matches. But applied judiciously and with a sober sense of timing, the same principles of openness as a default stance and and a predilection toward sharing that are at the heart of free software development (and the Internet itself) could usefully animate international diplomacy.

To be perfectly clear: I’m not suggesting that there is no need for secrecy whatsoever in diplomacy. I’m suggest that, as we’ve discovered with programming processes, secrecy might prove to be less necessary -and effective- to security than it appears to be.