wikileaks: the tides of information

In my last post, I discussed the hacker narrative, which is fundamentally based around some external antagonist — whether government or corporate — that the hacker struggles against. With that in mind, consider this article: Banks and WikiLeaks.

The whistle-blowing Web site WikiLeaks has not been convicted of a crime. The Justice Department has not even pressed charges over its disclosure of confidential State Department communications. Nonetheless, the financial industry is trying to shut it down.

[…]What would happen if a clutch of big banks decided that a particularly irksome blogger or other organization was “too risky”? What if they decided — one by one — to shut down financial access to a newspaper that was about to reveal irksome truths about their operations? This decision should not be left solely up to business-as-usual among the banks.

On one level, the banks are playing their menacing online personas to perfection, thus further driving the narrative. On quite another level, the banks’ actions are creating a new narrative as their online activities succeed in raising legitimate, real world questions over their actions. and it is interesting to note financial access — not accounts, but the ability to send money to — being regarded as more of a public utility than anything else.

This article also helps give an idea of how the hacker culture sees things: Hackers Watch a World Collapsing Into Chaos.

An interesting case of controlled information — although it is unclear who is controlling it and for what purpose — is Glenn Greenwald’s evisceration of Wired’s odd behavior with respect to releasing the full set of Manning-Lamo chat transcripts: The worsening journalistic disgrace at Wired. I can’t help but wonder this: if those chat logs do contain the information that Lamo claims they do, then I would expect the military to snap them up. If they do not, I would expect the military to bring pressure on Wired to make sure they don’t surface. Either way, it seems to me the military has a stake in making sure these transcripts don’t show up, or do so when it’s convenient (i.e. if they convince Manning to testify how they’d like). Given the interesting links between Paulson (Wired’s Senior Editor) and Lamo, and the prior convictions of both for hacking, I can’t be the only one this scenario has occured to. Read Greenwald’s article, it’s an impressive & extensive summary of what’s happened over there.

Now take a look at They’re ‘Slow-Torturing’ Bradley Manning Right Under Our Noses by John Grant. I’ve touched briefly before on the difference between the government — our regularly elected officials which change in and out fairly regularly, and the state — which generally remains in place for decades and while providing logistical support to the government, has its own set of goals, agendas, and programs despite the government. The CIA’s program of deprogramming and control of prisoners is straight out of the cold wars, long before Obama’s or even (much as I would like to pin it on him) Bush’s terms in office. I grant you that 9/11 gave much of the old cold war activities a shot in the arm like a fresh batch of heroin, but these structures have been in place for decades. In any case, for Manning to have a fair trial, whether or not he is guilty of any of the charges that he may eventually be brought up against him, it is imperative we keep up the pressure to make sure he is treated with decency and dignity, not with this attempted crackdown on his sense of self. Let us not give Manning’s jailers the time and obscurity they clearly desire. If there was any aspect of the Wikileaks story that clearly deserved a bright light of transparency shone on it, it is the uncharged and unconvicted Manning’s incarceration.

On the ongoing transformation of parts of the media, the traditional “fourth estate”into a mere arm for the government (or perhaps state; it’s hard to say), I present the description of events in Trial by Newspaper by Bianca Jagger, international human rights and climate change advocate. The careful presentation of the story of the sexual charges against Assange is illuminating. It is, of course, entirely similar to the careful presentation of certain stories about Manning, of certain stories about Assange’s accusers. There are numerous examples of selectively presented stories for all the participants, making it very difficult to sort through facts and presentations. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had access to the original sources of information for these things? Oh, wait…

One of the largest changes we’ve undergone on this globe in the last century is the speed with which information is distributed. Consider the way we learned of Pearl Harbor, for example. Contrast that with the reporting that went on during the Vietnam War that helped turn the tide of popularity, as people got to see first hand and up close what war meant. Move forward to the last few wars (the Gulf War and the Iraq war) in which the flow of information has been carefully managed again — not because as in Pearl Harbor’s time, there simply wasn’t a way for first hand information to be broadcast instantly as it happened, but because journalists’ and other reporters’ access to the war sites and information was carefully controlled. (I would in fact argue that this last development was one of the factors in leading large segments of the media “selling” themselves to the governments in order to get controlled access plus a taste of power in being part of the information flow denied to the public at large.)

Wikileaks introduces yet another factor into this ongoing dance of information flow and control, and makes it possible once again for vast numbers of people to instantly learn about what is going on from direct sources. Actually, the fact that Wikileaks is controlling the pace of these information tidbits is what sets it up in direct competition with governments around the world (and the U.S. in particular), which accounts for the extreme response it has received. After all, it is not the mere information that it has leaked (otherwise there’s a half dozen reporters on the NYT and other papers with recent reports who would be on the chopping block as well), it is that it is structured to do so, on an ongoing basis.

I’m going to back up yet again. One of the reasons this nation organized much of its elections and electorate as a representative democracy was because of the simple constraints of time. Appointing one person to represent a region or a certain number of people and to vote on their behalf (in congressional houses, etc) was a simple, yet efficient way to get around the fact that it took many days to travel, many days for information to get out to the edges of the new nation. In this day and age, it is in theory perfectly possible for everyone in this country to directly vote, instantly, for the president, and yet we keep the same electoral system that was put in place because of the original impossibility of everyone voting all at once (well, and yes… many of the founding fathers were also class-conscious and looking for ways to reduce or ameliorate what they saw as the power of the ignorant mob — balancing the house of representatives with the senate, as one example). Wikileaks continues in that similar vein of development in potentially setting it up for everyone to have access to information at the same time. Wikileaks makes it starkly clear not only how important it is who has access to information, but also that anyone, a nobody, can control the flow of information. Wikileaks is a decentralized model, meaning that it can be easily duplicated, it can be split infinitely, each one as important as the original. Not only that, the duplicates can themselves start to diverge, using different criteria for harvesting and releasing information (take a look at OpenLeak’s statement of purpose here: From Wikileaks to OpenLeaks, Via the Knight News Challenge). That makes Wikileaks infinitely adaptable as well. All of these facts present enormous challenges to governments and especially entrenched, established states.

I don’t know what direction all this will head. But I will note one last thing here. The more people in an organization — of any type, whether corporate, military, or government — the more likely it will be that information gets leaked. Whether the solution to reducing leaks will be to unleash a totalitarian-type, utterly controlled authoritarian organization, or redesign the organization into decentralized smaller and independent components, is anyone’s guess. (But the latter solution mirrors its nemesis and thus has more chance of succeeding.) See for example WikiLeaks may spawn new sedition act:

The infamous Sedition Act, which criminalized speech critical of the federal government and which was passed by the Federalists during another of America’s undeclared wars (that time, against France), lasted only three years, from 1798 to 1801. However, if the congressional critics of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have their way, a new and revised version of the Sedition Act may be in the offing.

(That is, let’s try the totalitarian approach.) How this works when Assange is not a U.S. citizen to begin with, and the activities Manning is alleged (though not yet charged) to have done are already illegal is not at all clear to me. That could backfire, as much as the original Sedition Act did. In fact, I would consider this observation

Reading the Espionage Act the way Assange’s critics would have us do, would open a Pandora’s Box of virtually unlimited reach. As Benjamin Wittes, a legal analyst from the Brookings Institution, explained on his blog, such interpretation would reach even “casual discussions of such disclosures by persons not authorized to receive them to other persons not authorized to receive them – in other words, all tweets sending around those countless news stories, all blogging on them, and all dinner party conversations about their contents.” There wouldn’t be enough jails to hold us all.

to be the key point. We are all of us, each individual one of us, creating flows of information now.

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