My friend Jeff Jonas wrote an excellent comment on my last blog article on Wikileaks in which he stated:
“Now with the Wikileaks disclosures it is clear the game has changed. Historically, public disclosure of classified data has been limited and infrequent – let’s even say, to a degree, tolerable. Contrast that with the scope of the recently leaked cables. At some point it may become intolerable. In which case, I will not be surprised if a number of governments around the world attempt to enact new, wide-sweeping, anti-leak legislation directed at not only those engaged in the initial theft of the data, but the distribution points (e.g., Wikileaks) and the publishers (e.g., the media). The principle being if one knowingly receives and benefits from stolen property, they are accomplices. This pendulum could swing so far (backwards) the future will have far fewer media leaks than the historical (tolerable) volumes – i.e., this whole fiasco resulting in less transparency and accountability.”
I think Jeff is right that governments who don’t already have information controls may be inclined to enact them to deter future leakers. Julian Assange may well be brought to trial in the United States on charges that amount to espionage. And many around the world may see that as a chilling result to a David and Goliath story about truth and secrecy.
But I don’t think that’s the end of it. In fact, I think we are at the beginning of lots of leaks because there is no way to perfectly control leaks. As long as human beings have had language, there have been secrets and leaks. People love to communicate what they know, and there is no way to stop it. Markets depend on information, and as long as there are people willing to buy and sell information there will be leaks. And there are other leaking websites. LiveLeak has been up for years.
There are to be sure, social, economic, and political costs to leaks, just as there are also social, economic, and political costs of secrecy. Some countries even mandate leaks under law. For example, in the United States, California and many other States have Security Breach Laws which mandate that organizations must disclose information about security breaches when they occur. In that case, the goal of the policy is to warn individuals about the potential harm that may result from identity theft. But the effect of the law is to force organizations to disclose information that is normally quite embarrassing (being hacked) and secret. Since the law was passed the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website has published the names of every company that has had a breach and how many customer records were stolen. Its a leak law.
Whistleblower statutes exist in many laws, to empower and protect people who blow the whistle on unethical or illegal behavior they observe in their organizations. They don’t always work well, but nations have enacted those laws to protect the people who leak sensitive or secret information that may have social, economic, and political benefits to disclose. Normally, journalists learn of whistleblowers or leakers and use that information as sources for their articles. Journalists are protected from having to reveal their sources, but those protections are often compromised by wiretapping and court mandates.
Wikileaks gave whistleblowers an alternative to journalists and newspapers. And that makes Wikileaks more than just an “attack” on national secrecy. Its also an important new attack on journalism. Because when people can reveal dishonest, unethical, or illegal behavior as it happens or shortly thereafter without having to call a journalist or a news channel, the world has a new method to empower whistleblowers.
For example, just look at the recent disclosures of sexual child abuse in Catholic schools in Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and the United States. In many cases, the abuse occurred decades ago and the victims are now adults. Their stories and trauma are only now coming to light and church documentation verifying the abuses have been published after court subpoena. For most of the victims, the disclosure is too late. Many of the victims complained to the church of the abuses but their voices were silenced by public disbelief and church suppression. But what if there had been a Wikileaks like website available decades ago where victims of abuse could have disclosed their stories and put pressure on the abusers to stop their abuses.
Why does it always take decades to discover the abuses that the powerful commit? Don’t people deserve speedy justice? And aren’t we all safer in a transparent world?
Of course transparency and leaks do themselves offer opportunities for corruption. Transparency doesn’t guarantee the truth, and we can all be poisoned by toxic content leaked through sites like Wikileaks. These are problems we will have to work through – what can we believe, how to authenticate information and anonymous sources – because leaks aren’t going away.
The precedent has been set. Wikileaks does change everything Jeff Jonas, because the world has had a taste of transparency and it likes the flavor. Julian Assange may be prosecuted, but others have already learned lessons from his experience and they will copy the example without the mistakes. And as leaking sites proliferate, leakers and whistleblowers the world over will discover the confessional liberation of public disclosure. It won’t be pretty, but it will make a huge difference in the lives of people who’s suffering might otherwise go unheard, unheeded, and unwelcome.
But of course that won’t prevent others from trying to control and suppress leaks too. That’s also human nature.