Judging Julian

Recent documents, obtained by The Guardian, that detail the allegations of rape and sexual assault again Wikileaks founder Julian Assange make three points eminently clear:

  1. Smear campaign or not, there is a basis to the allegations.
  2. At least with regard to his sexual liaisons with women, Julian Assange is a bit of a creep.
  3. This does not have any bearing on the value of Wikileaks.

These allegations reveal nothing about Wikileaks’ social value or lack thereof. Fortunately, the idea of a global digital network committed to radical transparency, targeting the most powerful institutions in the world, has too much merit to be destroyed by the foibles of one man.

There is, of course, a good deal of irony in the fact that any negative effects that Julian’s actions have on Wikileaks will be a result of radical transparency as applied to the founder’s personal life. His actions and bizarre denials have become a distracting sideshow to the important work of his organization, and it is Assange, not his critics, who perpetuates this distraction. If he truly believes in his mission (and I believe he does) he should take a sabbatical from Wikileaks to deal with his “personal issues.” Yes, the press release writes itself.

In the long run, even Wikileaks itself may become irrelevant to the movement for global transparency. Many, including Patrick Meier and the Economist magazine, have posited that Wikileaks is only transparency 1.0, and clone services and imitators, sophisticated or not, are on the way. OpenLeaks, started by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former German spokesman for WikiLeaks, is planned to launch early next year.

The Continuing Adventures of Spider and Starfish

Watching the excellent documentary WikiRebels, I am struck by the idea that it matters little if Wikileaks is right or wrong if it is the new default. From business to journalism to entertainment to war, we are seeing ever more examples of decentralized networks challenging the world’s most resource-rich centralized hierarchies.

In most cases these two types of human organization are locked in an ongoing duel. As yet, no hierarchies have been destroyed by the networks that seek to steal their niches in human culture. Android has not killed Symbian. BitTorrent has not killed the movie industry. Blogs have not killed newspapers. Wikileaks has not killed Mastercard. But, as Mark Pesce noted in his excellent talk at PdF 2009, these hierarchical institutions have been attacked in a very real way. They have less wealth, less power, and less legitimacy (yes, US government, I mean you) as a result of the actions of informal, transnational, and un-funded networks.

It would be too easy to say that now networks and hierarchies are engaged in a cat-and-mouse game, because this figure of speech implies both that the hierarchies are stronger and that there is no clear winner. What is more important to not who is winning, but that hierarchical institutions are now being challenged with a severity that they have never experienced before.

It is too soon to say who will win. It is entirely possible that hierarchies will win the learning curve and find ways to thwart networks. What is important is that this is a new struggle over the structure of human society and each year brings more dramatic examples and grander victories for the network. We are living in historic times.

The Economics of Diplomatic Secrecy

Writing about the recent WikiLeaks release of 250,000 State Department cables, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian noted:

Clearly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive, whatever computing’s snake-oil salesmen claim. No organisation can treat digitised communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms.

Given the global reach and lightening pace of politics in the 21st century, it is unlikely that the digital collection and transmission of diplomatic communication will cease. By revealing and exploiting inherent security weaknesses in digital communication, Wikileaks clearly hopes that this increase in transparency will lead to an increase in accountability. But how will diplomats and heads of state react?

Economics tells us that, in most cases, as the price of a commodity increases, demand for it decreases. Remember, price is not only counted in dollars, but also in transaction costs. Even if governments are willing to invest millions of dollars in more secure digital communications systems (multistage encryption, decryption keys changed every 24 hours) this also means decreased efficiency.

Some secrets may be so important that the government will seek to conceal them at any price, but overall, demand for secrecy is likely to fall. For many day-to-day interactions, diplomats may accept the risks of using quicker and less secure methods of communication (ie, the ones they have used thus far). They may accept the possibility of being brought to account for their words and actions.

By raisng the price of secrecy, Wikileaks is pushing for a new and more open default in international relations. The effects of this new default are as yet unknown.

History Repeating: Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

by Mary Joyce

Earlier this week, the site Wikileaks and a handful of newspapers around the world published 90,000 American military logs on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

For some historical perspective, here are a few comparisons between the leak of the Afghan reports and the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, a 7000-page internal report on Vietnam that revealed lies by multiple presidents on the motivation and conduct of that war.

While we may argue about similarities between the content and impact of these two leaks, the differences in their means of publication – one in the broadcast era and one in the digital era – are nothing short of staggering.


  • 1969: Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, begins xeroxing copies of the report. He plans to distribute these copies to people who will publicize them. This photocopying process takes several months where he removes sections of the report from his office at the Rand Corporation and often works on the photocopier through the night.
  • 2010: The report would be in a digital format and he would have been able to transfer it to a high-capacity flashdrive in a few minutes.


  • 1969: Ellsberg physically delivered the report to people he hoped would publicize it or take action to stop the Vietnam War. He gave the papers to certain members of Congress in 1969, then to reporters. This involved secret rendez-vous where a large box of papers was transferred between car trunks, which endangered both him and the recipient.
  • 2010: CD, encrypted email, USB, FTP – the transmission methods today allow fast transmission on a massive scale using multiple methods. He could have emailed the report to all members of Congress and reporters in a few hours from any location in the world… or uploaded them to Wikileaks.

Gate-Keepers: The New York Times

  • 1971: Although Ellsberg gave the papers to members of Congress in 1969, these Congressmen just sat on them, afraid of repercussions if they spoke about them publicly. As a results, Ellsberg gives the papers to the New York Times in March of 1971, but is takes months of legal and editorial wrangling for the Times to decide whether to publish the papers. They are also afraid of legal repercussions. The first Times story on the papers in not published until June of that year.
  • 2010: Julian Assange gives the New York Times an advance copy of the Afghanistan reports, yet their role has changed. As in 1971 Times reporters review and provide analysis of the leaked content, but unlike 1971 they no longer play the role of gatekeeper. Reporters know that Wikileaks will publish the reports whether or not the New York Times does.

Censorship: Injunctions on Papers

  • 1971: A few days after the first story is published, the US Attorney General, under orders from President Nixon, successfully files an injunction against the Times, preventing it from printing more articles about the papers. Ellsberg delivers the papers to the Washington Post, which publishes an article before also receiving an injunction. It seems that may be the end of the leak. Fortunately, Ellsberg convinces a dozen other papers to publish the reports, essentially killing the injunction.
  • 2010: Today, had an injunction been filed against the Times or Wikileaks, one could easily imagine a blog or Twitter campaign in which ordinary citizens would publish the content of the papers, resulting in not a dozen newspaper leaks, but thousands or millions of citizen-generated leaks.


Sources: chronology from TopSecretPlay.org, documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” available on NetFlix, video of panel “PdF ’10: Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg Talk Shop” on Tech President.

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