Wikileaks is often in the news, but for the wrong reasons. The web site provides a highly public outlet for “classified, censored, or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic, or ethical significance.” It is designed to be a journalistic tool for whistle-blowers and citizens of oppressive government and corporate regimes, a place of first and last resort for sensitive information from sources who need protection. It is a great irony, then, that an organization which specializes in censored information only makes the news when somebody violently objects.
I first stumbled upon Wikileaks about a year ago and have been watching it closely ever since. Despite its mission of openness, the site has a certain mystery about it: nowhere on the site are the principals publicly named. I was delighted, then, to attend a talk by two of the Wikileaks founders at the 25th Annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. The 50-minute presentation was titled Wikileaks vs. The World, or “a talk about some conclusions observing Wikileaks.”
You may have heard about some of the things we’ve done in the media, but what you hear about tends to be what is frequently of greatest salacious interest to the Western media and to people in general. That doesn’t tend to be our everyday work.
A look at the front page of Wikileaks today shows all sorts of topics: The un-redacted report of Abu Grhiab whistleblower Samuel Provence. The German Foreign Secret Service report on Kosovo, 2005. Alperin vs. Vatican Bank, 2008 concerning Nazi assets allegedly laundered in 1946. A Scientology Department of Special Affairs lecture. Documentation showing that Swiss Bank Julius Baer put USD $300 million through the Cayman Islands in 1999. “The secret internet censorship list of Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT).”
Wikileaks posts anything submitted to it complete and unaltered; that is the point. In this policy they represent the purest possible interpretation of the ideals of transparency and freedom of speech. Usually, the documents they post are applauded or at least ignored, but sometimes they draw the ire of those who feel that there is a case for certain secrets. A few weeks ago Wikileaks posted a list of Danish web-sites ostensibly censored for child-pornography; this summer they released a document describing the technical details of the Warlock signal jammers used by American forces in Iraq. They defend both choices, and indeed all of their leaks, with the same argument:
Who’s to judge the relevance, the political relevance? if it’s us who is to judge the relevance, then are we robust enough to judge this for all of society? … This is something for the public to do, and the political groups in the public, and not us.
Fighting censorship is what they’re all about. They believe deeply in the “fourth estate,” the role of the press and public cognizance as a check against tyranny. Like Wikipedia, they place great trust in the intelligence and enthusiasm of the public at large, who are asked to vet, analyze, and publicize the anonymously submitted documents. This ultimately represents a different model of society, an almost ridiculously open and transparent society. I did not hear the Wikileaks speakers ever concede that secrecy sometimes has its purposes, that there are legitimate reasons for knowledge to be hidden; instead, they repeatedly articulated the dangers of censorship.
The question is not what we need to be told. The question is what we need not to be told and who decides. Secret censorship systems are unaccountable and dangerous.
But again we are distracted. The possible mistakes and harm of Wikileaks cannot be judged in a vacuum, but only against the overall activities of the project. And sadly, sometimes it is the successes that draw the least attention.
There are a lot of things we do routinely that are very serious, but still get little attention. For example we have exposed many, many political assassinations. We released only three months ago a very important report on Kenya documenting 500 extra-judicial assassinations that had occurred in the past 18 months. There was some pickup in the Kenyan press, but the rest of the world, nothing. So getting leaked documents out is extremely important, but it’s not the only thing. Sometimes there is no interest group to care to spread the information.
The speakers urged the audience to get involved: to read, to analyze, to disclose. Our collective reality is only information, they said. “Everyone here is what he knows.” Every decision we make about what to say to someone else or what to write on our blogs defines the future world we live in, and defines what actually happened. It is not an absolute world; it is malleable. And, they claim, it is being changed in all sorts of ways with or without our knowledge or consent. Contrary to popular belief, “no medium is easier to censor than the internet.”
There is a complete eradication of certain parts of history going on. This is much easier than anyone in this crowd here most likely will think. We can see that censorship is being implemented systematically and globally. … George Orwell said that ‘he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future,’ and this is never more true than with electronic archives. We have seen many, many examples of major newspapers pull material from the archives permanently … For example, this year there were seven stories removed from The Guardian, The Telegraph, and the New Statesman, in response to fear over legal costs. If you go to the URLs for those stories, you won’t see that this story has been removed by legal action, you will see ‘not found’, and if you search the index you will see ‘not found’. Those stories not only have ceased to exist, they have ceased to have ever existed. So the centralization that is occurring in archive repositories means that censorship is very easy.
Speaking to an audience of hundreds of hackers, researchers, anarchists and artists at the CCC in Berlin, they reminded everyone that Wikileaks is real. At the CCC I learned about the flaws in proposed cryptographic technologies for electronic voting; I even learned that SSL itself has been compromised. But technology is not people. And this, perhaps, is the key point of the entire lecture, and the entire project:
All these documents are real. It is hard fact that is documented. And all these documents reflect some facets of something that is happening at some point somewhere in the world. This is reality. … These documents pertain to violence that is caused by truth being told, by documents surfacing to the society. So It is important to understand that is not a hypothetical construct, some project that is dealing with something very obscure. We are actually dealing with information that reflects a very important facet of lives all over the world, and that has an influence on the quality, the freedom, and all other aspects of lives, living beings that we all need to have compassion for, and care for. This is very important in the mission that we try to bring across.