Wikileaks, Now

by zunguzungu

“We don’t have targets, other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior”

Julian Assange, Time interview, last tuesday

It’s tempting to read Julian Assange’s 2006 essays as the master-key to understanding what Wikileaks represents now, tempting because it makes a really hard problem easy. But it’s also quite clear that Wikileaks has changed quite a bit since 2006, and when Wikileaks tweeted my post (which was sort of where the whole experience became surreal for me), it seems important that they praised it as explicating “one of the key ideas behind WikiLeaks.” That is, one of them, and maybe not even the primary one.

So what are the others? What else is it that Wikileaks is actually trying to do? We do want to think critically about what Assange is saying publicly about the organization he fronts for, of course, but I tend to think that what he says in interviews now is probably a better guide to their present activities than something he wrote four years ago. For example, in his interview with Time, Assange said that Wikileaks “practices civil obedience, that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.” And a moment later, he clarified that “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.”

This is an important point that gets lost if we focus too much on the techno-utopianism of the original essay, which can credibly be read as too easily equating secrecy — in all its forms — as evil. I feel like such a reading runs against the spirit of the essay, but since he can seem to make secrecy a necessary function of authoritarianism, he at least suggests that the reverse might be the case, or beg the question. And as Dr. Science is arguing over at Obsidian Wings, arguing a direct relationship between secrecy and authoritarianism can also cause us to overlook the conspiracies which occur in plain sight (PNAC, for example).

More than that, though, if we think of Wikileaks as a organization that works against “abusive” organizations — as practicing civil disobedience in a more general sense — then a whole hell of a lot starts to hinge on what is meant by abusive, and radical transparency starts to seem a lot less like a principle than a means to an end. In that interview, for example, he mentions that

“We keep secret the identity of our sources, as an example, [and] take great pains to do it. So secrecy is important for many things but shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses.”

This is not commensurate with a Zuckerbergian dismissal of all secrecy, or even the more interesting claim that secrecy is necessary for authoritarianism to function. It may be that Wikileaks is doing different things now than they thought they would in 2006. In fact, this seems so overwhelmingly likely to be the case that it feels silly to even type it. But taking that fact seriously requires us to think a little more carefully about what Wikileaks might have learned in the last four years, how their activities might have changed.

For one thing, Julian Assange talks more like the head of a media organization these days than like a hacker revolutionary. When, in the interview with Forbes, Andy Greenberg mentioned that he used to be a “traditional hacker,” he bristles a little:

That was 20 years ago. It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m quite proud of it. But I understand the reason they suggest I’m a computer hacker now. There’s a very specific reason…There’s a deliberate attempt to redefine what we’re doing not as publishing, which is protected in many countries, or the journalist activities, which is protected in other ways, [but to redefine what we’re doing] as something which doesn’t have a protection, like computer hacking, and to therefore split us off from the rest of the press and from these legal protections. It’s done quite deliberately by some of our opponents. It’s also done because of fear, from publishers like The New York Times that they’ll be regulated and investigated if they include our activities in publishing and journalism.

Which seems completely true, parenthetically; only yesterday, the State department’s daily press briefing included the message that “WikiLeaks Not Media Organization.” This is, of course, literally untrue; as an organization which moves information around, Wikileaks is a “medium” for information, a media organization. Hillary Clinton doesn’t care about etymology though; what she means is that Wikileaks does not qualify for the protections which are afforded a media organization.

It may simply be tactics that leads Wikileaks to claim the status of a journalistic organization (though why they do it is far less important than the fairly plain fact that most of what they do seems to be exactly what the word “journalism” describes). But the way he handles the problem of self-definition is at least interestingly subtle. Here, at Time, he writes that

“…we’re a source-protection organization, so the last thing we would do is discuss possible sources.”

Which reframes the problem they exist to solve: instead of being the whistle-blower themselves, they work to enable others to whistle-blow (the medium through which leaks flow).

In January, at Hungry Beast, he said this:

“WikiLeaks is an international public service run by Sunshine Press. Sunshine Press is a collection of journalists and activists who are trying to publish information that has been withheld from the public, or censored once journalists have published it. We run a multijurisdictional service which protects sources with encryption technology and also through the legal system by basing our operations in countries such as Sweden and Belgium which have strong source protection laws.”

An “international public service” is incredibly vague language, but I don’t think it’s clear what Wikileaks is, and anyway, what Wikileaks is now is unlikely to be what it ends up being (and already seems to be somewhat different than what it began as). I emphasize this point not only because I want to derail the idea — which my original post did a lot to establish — that Wikileaks can be understood simply by looking at its constituting documents, as it were.

For example, the thinking in this little quote is to be found nowhere in the original essays:

It’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I’ve learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free. WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical.

But I’m less interested in that ambition than in the simple fact that Wikileaks is evolving, and you can’t read more than a few interviews without Assange saying some variation on “We used to do X, but that caused Y problem, so now we do Z.” For example, from today’s live chat at The Guardian:

I originally tried hard for the organisation to have no face, because I wanted egos to play no part in our activities. This followed the tradition of the French anonymous pure mathematians, who wrote under the collective allonym, “The Bourbaki”. However this quickly led to tremendous distracting curiosity about who and random individuals claiming to represent us. In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force.

Or this, from Time:

When we first started, we thought we would have the analytical work done by bloggers and people who wrote Wikipedia articles and so on. And we thought that was a natural, given that we had lots of quality, important content…But actually it turns out that that is not at all true. The bulk of the heavy lifting — heavy analytical lifting — that is done with our materials is done by us, and is done by professional journalists we work with and by professional human-rights activists. It is not done by the broader community. However, once the initial lifting is done, once a story becomes a story, becomes a news article, then we start to see community involvement, which digs deeper and provides more perspective. So the social networks tend to be, for us, an amplifier of what we are doing. And also a supply of sources for us.

So when I saw this problem early on in our first year, that the analytical effort which we thought would be supplied by Internet citizens around the world was not, I saw that, well, actually, in terms of articles, form tends to follow the funding. You can’t expect to get news-style articles out of people that are not funded after a career structure in the same way that news organizations are. You will get a different sort of form, and that form may be commentary, which sometimes is very good and sometimes there are very senior people providing commentary that is within their media experience, or we get sources who hand over material, because once again, within their media experience, it is an important issue to them. But what we don’t get from the [inaudible] community is people writing articles about an issue that they didn’t have an intimate involvement with in the first place. And of course, if you think about it, that’s natural — why would they be? The incentive’s not there. When people write political commentary on blogs or other social media, it is my experience that it is not — with some exceptions — their goal to expose the truth. Rather, it is their goal to position themselves among their peers on whatever the issue of the day is. The most effective, the most economical way to do that is simply to take the story that’s going around — it has already created a marketable audience for itself — and say whether they’re in favor of that interpretation or not.

I find the idea that “form tends to follow the funding” really interesting, by the way, and it has a lot of suggestive possibilities; for one thing, it’s the point where Wikileaks parted company with (so called “cofounder”) John Young, who said this in an interview:

I think the type of stuff I was going to publish, you should never do it for money. Only because that contaminates the credibility and it turns it into a business opportunity where there’s great treachery and lying going on. And it will contaminate Wikileaks. It always does. In fact, that’s the principal means by which noble endeavors are contaminated, the money trail. That’s pretty obvious. I happen to think that amateur stuff is better than paid stuff.

Whether this is true or not, it’s clear that Wikileaks’ decision to monetize represented an evolution from what it was in 2006. And I’m not sure what it means, but I want to close with three of his own anecdotes that I think clarify how complicated the grey areas are that Wikileaks is moving through, and how no simple set of principles — even Assange’s own — would really “explain” what it is that they’re doing.

First, from Forbes:

Assange: There’s a Texas Canadian oil company whose name escapes me. And they had these wells in Albania that had been blowing. Quite serious. We got this report from a consultant engineer into what was happening, saying vans were turning up in the middle of the night doing something to them. They were being sabotaged. The Albanian government was involved with another company; There were two rival producers and one was government-owned and the other was privately owned. So when we got this report; It didn’t have a header. It didn’t say the name of the firm, or even who the wells belonged to…

So I said, what the hell do we do with this thing? It’s impossible to verify if we don’t even know who it came from. It could have been one company trying to frame the other one. So we did something very unusual, and published it and said “We’ve got this thing, looks like it could have been written by a rival company aiming to defame the other, but we can’t verify it. We want more information.” Whether it’s a fake document or real one, something was going on. Either one company is trying to frame the other, which is interesting, or it’s true, which is also very interesting.

That’s where the matter sat until we got a letter of inquiry from an engineering consulting company asking how to get rid of it. We demanded that they first prove that they were the owner…They sent us a screen capture with the missing header and other information.

Andy Greenberg: What were they thinking?

Assange: I don’t know.

And then this, from the New Yorker:

Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.” Because Assange publishes his source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative. In the case of Project B, Assange wanted to edit the raw footage into a short film as a vehicle for commentary. For a while, he thought about calling the film “Permission to Engage,” but ultimately decided on something more forceful: “Collateral Murder.” He told Gonggrijp, “We want to knock out this ‘collateral damage’ euphemism, and so when anyone uses it they will think ‘collateral murder.’

The edited film, which was eighteen minutes long, began with a quote from George Orwell that Assange and M had selected: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It then presented information about the journalists who had been killed, and about the official response to the attack. For the audio of this section, one of the film’s Icelandic editors had layered in fragments of radio banter from the soldiers. As Assange reviewed the cut, an activist named Gudmundur Gudmundsson spoke up to say that the banter allowed viewers to “make an emotional bond” with the soldiers. Assange argued that it was mostly fragmentary and garbled, but Gudmundsson insisted: “It is just used all the time for triggering emotions.”

“At the same time, we are displaying them as monsters,” the editor said.

“But emotions always rule,” Gudmundsson said. “By the way, I worked on the sound recording for a film, ‘Children of Nature,’ that was nominated for an Oscar, so I am speaking from experience.”

“Well, what is your alternative?” Assange asked.

“Basically, bursts of sounds, interrupting the quiet,” he said.

The editor made the change, stripping the voices of the soldiers from the opening, but keeping blips and whirs of radio distortion. Assange gave the edit his final approval.

And finally, this from an interviewwith Stefan May:

Assange: One thing that can’t be faked is how much money they pay. If you have an auction and a media organisation pays the most, then they are predicting, that they will benefit the most from publishing the story. That is, they will have the maximum number of readers. So this is a very good way to measure who should have the exclusivity. We tried to do it as an experiment in Venezuela .

SM: Why Venezuela?

Assange: Because of the character of the document. We had 7 000 e-mails from Freddy Balzan, he was Hugo Chavez’s former speech writer and also the former ambassador to Argentinia. We knew that this document would have this problem, that it was big and political important, therefore probably no one would write anything about it for the reason I just said.

SM: What happened?

Assange: This auction proved to be a logistical nightmare. Media organisations wanted access to the material before they went to auction. Consequently we would get them to sign non-disclosure agreements, chop up the material and release just every second page or every second sentence.That proved to distracting to all the normal work we were doing, so that we said, forget it, we can’t do that. We just released the material as normal. And that’s precisely what happened: no one wrote anything at all about those 7 000 Emails. Even though 15 stories had appeared about the fact that we were holding the auction.

SM: The experiment failed.

Assange: The experiment didn’t fail; the experiment taught us about what the burdens were. We would actually need a team of five or six people whose job was just to arrange these auctions.

SM: You plan to continue the auction idea in the future …

Assange: We plan to continue it, but we know it will take more resources. But if we pursue that we will not do that for single documents. We will instead offer a subscription. This would be much simpler. We would only have the overhead of doing the auction stuff every three months or six months, and not for every document.