The hacker ethic, open source, open government, radical transparency and mass collaboration: all these ideas are linked by a belief that the Internet will promote non-hierarchical organization, decentralization, “democratization”, openness and sharing. A side effect of the WikiLeaks cables is to show that, for all the talk of movements and revolutions, these beliefs are empty of real political content. The cables prompt some tough questions, but the fault lines those questions reveal run perpendicular to digital attitudes, not parallel. When push comes to political shove, open source proponents and so on are found on both sides of the debate. The Internet is a new terrain, but the battles being fought on it are old ones.
For example, Open Government advocates are one group having a tough time reacting to the leaks, and their struggles show that the real issues are not the open source/hacker technological questions of openness, access to data, and transparency, but the old political question of “US foreign policy, for or against?”
“Is WikiLeaks open government?” asks O’Reilly’s Alex Howard, but he doesn’t answer his own question. Tech President’s Nancy Scola writes about “What WikiLeaks Means for ‘Open Government’” and also avoids coming down on for or against WikiLeaks. In typically gnomic fashion, Tim O’Reilly stays firmly on the fence, tweeting that WikiLeaks neither champions nor defies open government, instead it “*challenges* [open government government 2.0] philosophy. Challenges are good if we rise to them.” Whatever that means.
The internal struggle highlights an emptiness at the heart of the Open Government idea. It is based on the idea that more data available to more people will make government work better, either by improving efficiency and access (Open 311 etc) or by highlighting particular problems (maplight.org and so on), or perhaps both. But while WikiLeaks is making more data available to more people it has no interest in making the US government work better: quite the opposite. As Assange’s writings and this widely linked essay by Aaron Bady make clear, WikiLeaks is using information exposure to put sand in the gears of the US State Department.
There is one agreement among Internet/Open Government supporters, which is that the cables highlight excessive government secrecy, and that it shows us that government should be more open to start with. From Australia, Stephen Collins admits that “there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the open government world at the moment,” but goes on to argue that “phenomena such as Wikileaks are a symptom, rather than the disease itself. Wikileaks exists because of the failure of governments around the world to operate openly enough throughout their history.” Jeff Jarvis makes the same argument, suggesting that nothing in the documents is that bad anyway: “the revelation of these secrets has not been devastating. America’s and Germany’s relationship has not collapsed because one undiplomatic diplomat called Angela Merkel uncreative.”
But while there are many cables in the pile that are of no interest to anyone and which seem to be marked as secret for no good reason, to focus on those is to ignore the real revelations that are coming out, day after day. The purpose of the leaks is to derail the American global agenda – if they haven’t succeeded, they will try again.
The openness question is always contingent, and to phrase political questions in terms of data is sidestepping the big issue. Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government. Everyone is in favour of other people’s openness.
The same fault lines are appearing around issues such as Amazon and PayPal’s refusal to deal with WikiLeaks. Despite all the talk from the commanding heights of Silicon Valley about the Internet as an enabling technology for dissidents in other countries, especially Iran and China, the enthusiasm for dissent at home is muted. I am a dissident, you are a criminal?
(If anyone cares, my view is that the leaking of these WikiLeaks cables was a brave act and if it damages US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, which I think it will, I’m all for it.)