09 December 2010

Down the Drain with Wikileaks

Whistleblowing is good when actual wrong has been done, but governments and businesses cannot function without privacy any more than individuals or families can. When people don't feel comfortable talking off the record, or when they fear they might be endangered by it, they stop talking, and mutual misunderstanding and suspicion ensue.

Take the revelation that Hillary Clinton had inquired of her aides whether Christina Fernandez was on medication and if so, how the meds affected her decision-making. It's a perfectly legitimate question for a secretary of state to ask before meeting the president of a foreign country. Yet Ms. Fernandez is hardly likely to be pleased to learn that it was asked, and this makes relations between Argentina and the US ever so slightly more difficult. Much worse would be the consequences of harsh words used by US diplomats (in a confidential discussion) about the chief Chinese representative at the Six-Party Talks over North Korea, and the revelation that some American diplomats think an important Turkish minister is a bit of a closet Islamic extremist. Publicizing such matters makes the going along the rough edges of international relations just that much rougher--and makes the world a slightly more dangerous place.

Back on the home front, what good purpose is served by making public the knowledge that some American diplomats in Colombo, at least, believe that President Rajapakse and his military commanders are guilty of war crimes? It is not as if the news is going to change the views people already hold. It may briefly put fresh heart into human-rights campaigners and civil-society activists, but its practical consequences are all negative: they consist mainly of increased friction, distrust and resentment between Sri Lanka and the US, and between Sri Lanka and the west in general. It will make working towards final reconciliation and accountability harder than ever. That benefits nobody.

'Freedom of information' also means freedom for information to flow. By turning itself into an obstacle to its free passage in this way, Wikileaks has made the world a shadier, more secretive place. This is nothing less than a terrorist attack on civilization. It will have a far greater impact, in the long term, than 9/11 ever did or could. And it is not just the West that is the victim here. It is everybody.


  1. Without the grace that weaves effortlessly through your words I will endeavor to partake in this conversation. Your perception is indeed relevant, purely because it is your perception. That is your birthright.

    However may I?

    "and mutual misunderstanding and suspicion ensure". In my perception mutual misunderstanding and suspicion ensures when the word is not authentic. If the word comes from a place of the mind and ego without any connection to consciousness it results in the above mentioned. Through the law of nature nothing is permanent, everything is temporary. However speech that is not authentic or pure in its intention will eventually come undone through it true form. That is the power of the word. How it comes undone could be seen as irrelevant.

    "Freedom of information also means the freedom to flow." If it has happened then it IS in the flow, regardless of which direction we would like the flow should be flowing. Nothing is in our control. Everything that has been done is part of a vast and magnificent intricate web of synchronicity. Wikileaks is a trigger, a catalyst and has done nothing more than magnified what already is. Stated by some other graceful brother, “the position humanity has found itself in has for a very long time been cleverly masqueraded as stability. Called conservative it attempts to conserve what already is...fearful of growth into areas that are new.” We claim that we desire change, but deep down in our subconscious we do not want it to be different. Such is the power of the mind. It insidiously maintains stagnation where fearfulness gathers. Until our fear is expelled forth from its hiding place it is unable to transform. Something always comes along to shift us from our stagnation. It's a fairly simple process and we have all experienced this individually as well as on a collective level. However we do have the choice; we can either move from our position kicking and screaming or we could surrender.

    This is indeed a grand opportunity for a wave of transformation. With anything significantly pushing the current status quo, as Russian roulette as it may seem, perhaps we could try to perceive it indifferently. With no attachment to the outcome. Look beyond our initial viewpoints that are based on analytical construction of the mind. Come to a place of heartfelt centeredness and do nothing but trust that all is happening for our collective best interest.


  2. Why assume that government should have a right to privacy in order to function, but not individuals, and that some goverments should have more privacy than others ? If freedom of information is about freedom for information to flow, then let it flow.

    Privacy is a necessity but then it should not be taken for granted ? Information should be free to flow but not only when you like it.

    Individuals have a right to protect their privacy and we do, but goverments and businesses will impose on our privacy and gather information which they selectively 'leak' to who knows who.
    In Sri Lanka and in the United States the erosion of individual privacy is well understood and even accepted. Your privacy can not be taken for granted. Many businesses including Facebook will gather and leak your information to the relevant stakeholders at the right time. Yet you function just fine although you may not like it if you knew what others knew about you.

    Similarly don't governments and businesses protect their privacy through elaborate laws and measures, while at the same time enaging in espionage to impose on the privacy of other governments ? Yes they do - because they do not take their privacy or the privacy of other governments for granted. Yet they continue to function despite this.

    We all know that businesses have it good precisely because of privacy - for example the dirtiest businesses withold information about emissions in the name of privacy ?

    China's human rights record is not a matter of privacy, nor Sri Lanka's - but leaks about exchanges between the US and its corollaries is a matter of privacy and is critical to their functioning?

    In fact howls about privacy are a clear sign of chloroform at work. In an anasthetised society the only freedom of speech one can imagine is that which has no effect..

    Julian Assange's answer to a reader's question about government's right to authority over freedom and censorship of privacy is... wide awake:

    The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be "free" because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free. In states like China, there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has power and power is scared of it. We should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction. The attacks against us by the US point to a great hope, speech powerful enough to break the fiscal blockade.


  3. "'Freedom of information' also means freedom for information to flow." Yes. Some of the wikileaks may be less transformational than others, like the ones you've chosen to use as examples. But I find it curious that you have not mentioned other more startling things such as the leaks about civilian casualties in the Iraq war. Would you recommend keeping Hitler's genocides secret with this same logic?

  4. Sally, do you see Wikileaks as a potential instrument of the transformation in human nature (or at least human behaviour) you foresee? How would that work, do you think?

    Vak, your concerns are addressed in the very first line of my post. Allow me to expand on that a little.

    The problem with the latest revelations from Wikileaks is that they're not about any actual wrongdoing--they're just gossip, mostly. Publishing them won't help make the world a cleaner and more moral place, it will just make people in official positions more secretive in their statements and dealings with one another and with the public.

    Any time someone blows a whistle, it makes information less free. Whistleblowing makes people and organizations--even perfectly innocent ones--more reticent, and causes access to and distribution of information to become more regulated in the name of security (or conversely, of transparency). This is irksome, but if it helps reduce official wrongdoing it is a price worth paying.

    But when there is no actual wrongdoing being revealed (as in the examples I chose, and this is why I chose them), is that price still worth paying? I think not.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but at the time of writing I have heard of no American wrongdoing that has yet come to light because of Wikileaks' State Department cable dump. Yet international relations have become that much trickier (and not just for America) because of it, because in the future diplomats and their associates will be much cagier talking off the record. The final result of the Wikileaks cable dump will not be more transparency, but less of it.

  5. Yes of course international relations have become trickier, as it has at other points of time.
    Is the 'gossip' making it trickier or the fear of non-gossip?
    And is it Assange's duty to choose what the world should know and what it shouldn't?