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Letter from the Editor

Is WikiLeaks a Good Thing?

By itself, perhaps not. But as an innovator, maybe.

  • This letter appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • February 22, 2011

In this issue of Technology Review we describe and celebrate the 50 most innovative companies in the world. Neither described nor celebrated among the TR50 is ­WikiLeaks, the Internet organization that publishes the secrets of governments and businesses, because it is neither a company dedicated to generating profits nor, perhaps, a fit subject for celebration. But WikiLeaks is, for all that, the most interesting Web startup around.

In “Transparency and Secrets” I have tried to make sense of the organization and its guiding spirit, Julian Assange. What WikiLeaks is, and whether it is good or bad for civil society, has become disputed terrain; and what has been written tends to reveal the authors’ feelings about authority more than it illuminates the organization’s innovations. Yet those innovations are real and disruptive and, like those of any Web startup, can be imitated by other, perhaps more sustainable ventures with better modes of business.

In my review I define WikiLeaks and separate its technology from Julian Assange’s goals, which are, he has written, “to induce fear and paranoia in … [the] leadership and planning coterie” of “conspiracies”—by which he means the management of modern states and corporations. I suggest that his creation may not survive very long, because the state, with all its powers, will resent any attempt by an avowed enemy to explode its mysteries. I argue that the organization’s technology—the “secure drop box,” which I call a “ ’platform’ from which leaks cannot be traced and cannot be censored”—once imagined cannot be forgotten, and will be replicated by more conventional media organizations like the New York Times and Al Jazeera, as well as by other, less radically activist organizations dedicated to leaking. One disgruntled former WikiLeaks volunteer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has said he will create a competing, less politically threatening platform called OpenLeaks. Others are sprouting up.

This story is part of our March/April 2011 Issue
See the rest of the issue

Is all this a good thing? In writing my review, I evaded any moral or political judgment, but the question preoccupied me.

Any answer will reflect the writer’s preferences. Personally, I distrust transparency. I am by birth and education a member of the establishment, and politically a Whig (that is, a sort of progressive conservative). I think the rights we enjoy are not natural but derive ultimately from the laws of a properly constituted state, and I am wary of attacks upon its institutions. I believe that states and corporations, like individuals, enjoy some privacy rights and that any human system requires secrecy for its effective management. Neither innovations, nor art, nor contracts, nor representative government, nor marriages, nor many other valuable things would exist without secrets.

More, I am confident that we know how secrets should be kept. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier recently wrote an article called “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of ­WikiLeaks.” There he insisted, “If the secret is of vital interest to other people, then secrets can be kept by those who are sanctioned and accountable to keep them within the bounds of a reasonably functional democratic process.” I think that’s about right.

At the same time, of course I am conflicted. As a journalist, I am committed professionally to truth-telling. Often that means revealing the secrets of the powerful, who, understandably, resist public embarrassment and would prosecute the publication of leaks as treason or theft if they could. Therefore, I cling to the formal protections that let me publish such secrets without risk. Lanier’s reasonably functional democratic process requires for its operations that I should be free to practice a kind of licensed disrespect for the ordinary laws governing secrecy.

Justice Hugo Black, explaining the Supreme Court’s decision in 1971 to allow the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers (which showed that the U.S. government had misled the American people about the origins, scope, and progress of the Vietnam War), wrote, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” It was true then, and it is truer now. Secrets breed like weeds, and all over the world they have grown to occlude everything that is done by those who govern us or sell us things; technology has made it easier for states and corporations to keep such secrets; and a corrective toward transparency is long overdue. Thus, I welcome the use of secure drop boxes by recognizable media organizations, or neutral organizations that wish to work with them.

Just as we balance equality and freedom, we must balance the conflicting goods of secretiveness and transparency. I don’t like Julian Assange’s goals and methods, but corrective reformers are mostly unlikable weirdos.

But write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com and tell me what you think.

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