Wikileaks analysis Part 1: Some notes on transparency

There's been a lot of discussion of Wikileaks and it's high-profile founder, Julian Assange, recently. Some of it tittle-tattle led mainstream news stuff, and some more reasoned critical analysis.

I've come acoss a few good blog posts that have spurred me to spend time thinking about Wikileaks and the deeper implcations the site-cum-organisation might have for contemporary media and politics. 

As often happens, my intention to post short, pithy comments in response fails and I end up postng longercomments than planned.

So I thought I'd round them up into a couple of blog posts about Wikileaks and a couple of central themes.

In this first post, I responded to a couple of big questions Jed Hallam asked about Wikileaks and its effect on transparency, particularly from the perspective of the individual.

Jed asked whether the fall-out from Wikileaks will mean that people (and I'd presume this term can apply at both a individual and collective, organisational level) start "behaving themselves […] thus destrying any risk of being found out".

Or perhaps things will go the opposite way with people becoming "ultra-concerned about their privacy" online as possibly evidence by phenomena such as whitewalling (amply demonstrated by Drew)

FInally, Jed asked whether "the world will totally change and people will become totally relaxed about who they are and what they do – every tweet and Facebook update will become accountable for and Eric Schmidt will die a happy man."

I argued that we'll end up with a mixture of two and three. There's a possiblility Julian Assange will see the effects of his "secrecy tax" come to fruition but I'm not too sure in my comment:

Yes, people can leak documents on the web. But they have to get them first. Geert Lovink’s 10 Theses on Wikileaks is relevant here as he makes the claim that Wikileaks only offers a quantitative difference to existing whistle-blowing, not a qualitative one.

Plus, Wikileaks is the antithesis of transparency. We don’t know if the leaks are accurate or planted. Nor do we know how WLs operates, how it chooses or edits material, for example.

Secondly, how likely in realist terms will it be for the government or state or even corporations to become ‘squeaky clean’ in case they’re exposed?

Cory Doctorow wrote a great Comment is Free piece after the G20 protests in London where crowd-sourced citizen journalism content exposed police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson, despite their initial flat denials.

Doctorow argued that transparency is nothing unless justice is done. What happened next? The policeman in question was acquitted and faced no further charges.

Transparency in this context only *reinforces* the feeling of disempowerment, helplessness and frustration with existing power.

WIll the US will clean up its military and diplomatic procedures as a result of Wikileaks?

Sadly, I think not. Although I do agree the web will demand some changes at the edges of organisational behaviour, it will outdone by a reliance on information management – both internally and externally – rather than drive significant – and certainly ethical – changes to corporate and organisational behaviour.

For example, the media were circulated D-Notices ahead of the #Cablegate release so it’s very possible what gets reported in the press is still only half the story – and what I’ve read so far isn’t really “news” (e.g. middle eastern leaders wanted to invade Iran (Shock!) and the US urged diplomats to spy on UN members?

Hardly ground-breaking when it was reported years ago that MI6 is/was actively spying on UN delegates.)

I do however, agree, that the web may well change the ability of governments/states and corporations to censor information (Trafigura was a good case in point from a corporate perspective) but of course, all governments and states need to do is move up the food-chain and start blocking/censoring the source of information.

See this very recent story of the UK police applying direct to Nominet to gain take down powers for websites engaged in “criminal activity” as a perfect example.

Of course, criminal activity is subjective but I would imagine that as long as websites are engaged in publishing harmless entertainment they'll be fine.

Which leads me to your third proposition. I agree…. people are ncreasingly opening up and putting more and more personal information online.

And at a day-to-day level I like this idea. I do believe it will force the public and private sector to adopt similar approaches and further push transparency as a tool/outcome to a certain degree.

But equally, I don’t think this will ultimately make for a more equal or even balance of power. The use and abuse of this by corporations, governments and states will no doubt over-ride any greater benefit for the greater good. The Cybernetic Hypothesis has more to say about this.

And this, I think, might bring us full circle.

Wikichains – great idea if it leverages the power of networks

Screen shot 2009-12-07 at 18.25.29

I discovered WikiChains today, a rather intriguing and potentially amazing website.

The project is put together by Dr Mark Graham from Oxford University’s Internet Institute and would appear to be a not-fpr-profit enterprise (calling on volunteers to help create content) – although this isn’t stated explicitly.

WikiChains aims to use crowd-sourced data to shine a light on the production chain of products we use in our everyday lives by tracing and highlighting the origins of these products and exposing the ‘reality’ of its journey from raw material to home.

In it’s own words, the site:

encourage ethical consumption and transparency in commodity chains. … The core activities of WikiChains will involve the setting-up and maintenance of a wiki website. This website will encourage Internet users from around the world to upload text, images, sounds, and videos of any node on any commodity chain.  … The hope is that ultimately a large enough body of data will be assembled to allow consumers to find out information about the chains of all mass produced commodities.

This is no small claim and so far, while the total number of articles seems to be low (thetre;sno root inde that I can find) the range is broad, spanning Thai silk through to Morrocan Soapbar.

But I can’t help wondering why – given the intellectual prowess of its founders – they persist in thinking that the site will somehow slowly grow itself.

True, some outreach might help to increase the number of entries on the site but I can’t help thinking: this should be a WikiMedia Fundation project.

Our strategic advice for clients in the social space is always don’t try to build a new community. Instead, see what your networks are already doing, join in and empower them to improve their effectiveness in achieving shared outcomes.

Leveraging the WikiMedia and Wikipedia community seems a no brainer given the sheer volume of information that already exists (some of which is no doubt going to replicated by WikiChains) and the collective action already undertaken by the Wikipedia contributors to further knowledge creation.

It’ll be interesting to watch WikiChains develop (the have their organisational development plan on the site) and see in which direction the project grows.