Wikileaks and the Long Haul

Like a lot of people, I am conflicted about Wikileaks.

Citizens of a functioning democracy must be able to know what the state is saying and doing in our name, to engage in what Pierre Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy”*, the democracy of citizens distrusting rather than legitimizing the actions of the state. Wikileaks plainly improves those abilities.

On the other hand, human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness. People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon. Wikileaks plainly damages those abilities. (If Aaron Bady’s analysis is correct, it is the damage and not the oversight that Wikileaks is designed to create.*)

And so we have a tension between two requirements for democratic statecraft, one that can’t be resolved, but can be brought to an acceptable equilibrium. Indeed, like the virtues of equality vs. liberty, or popular will vs. fundamental rights, it has to be brought into such an equilibrium for democratic statecraft not to be wrecked either by too much secrecy or too much transparency.

As Tom Slee puts it, “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.”* My personal view is that there is too much secrecy in the current system, and that a corrective towards transparency is a good idea. I don’t, however, believe in total transparency, and even more importantly, I don’t think that independent actors who are subject to no checks or balances is a good idea in the long haul.

If the long haul were all there was, Wikileaks would be an obviously bad thing. The practical history of politics, however, suggests that the periodic appearance of such unconstrained actors in the short haul is essential to increased democratization, not just of politics but of thought.

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books*, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.

Unlike the United States’ current pursuit of Wikileaks.*

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.

The Unites States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating. (Calls for Julian’s assassination are even more nauseating.) It may be that what Julian has done is a crime. (I know him casually, but not well enough to vouch for his motivations, nor am I a lawyer.) In that case, the right answer is to bring the case to a trial.

In the US, however, the government has a “heavy burden”, in the words of the Supreme Court, for engaging in prior restraint of even secret documents, an established principle since New York Times Co. vs. The United States*, when the Times published the Pentagon Papers. If we want a different answer for Wikileaks, we need a different legal framework first.

Though I don’t like Senator Joseph Lieberman’s proposed SHIELD law (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination*), I do like the fact that it is a law, and not an extra-legal avenue (of which Senator Lieberman is also guilty.*) I also like the fact that the SHIELD Law makes it clear what’s at stake: the law proposes new restraints on publishers, and would apply to the New York Times and The Guardian as it well as to Wikileaks. (As Matthew Ingram points out, “Like it or not, Wikileaks is a media entity.”*) SHIELD amounts to an attempt to reverse parts of New York Times Co. vs. The United States.

I don’t think such a law should pass. I think the current laws, which criminalize the leaking of secrets but not the publishing of leaks, strike the right balance. However, as a citizen of a democracy, I’m willing to be voted down, and I’m willing to see other democratically proposed restrictions on Wikileaks put in place. It may even be that whatever checks and balances do get put in place by the democratic process make anything like Wikileaks impossible to sustain in the future.

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

228 Responses to “Wikileaks and the Long Haul”

  1. Mike Says:

    I’m reminded of the response to the infamous Danish cartoons, most of which would have passed unnoticed if it weren’t for the enthusiastic distribution and amplification of same by a few of the offended.

    Now that newspapers around the world are publishing the material, will the US rendition the publishers and try them all as treasonous traitors?

  2. Pam Paulina Says:

    Clay writes: “The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us ‘You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.’”

    I’m sure you’re right that leaders of authoritarian regimes will say such things, but you seem to be suggesting that the “us” in your sentence is the US government. And at least so far, that has not happened. Many private companies in the US and elsewhere seem to be abandoning support for WIkileaks, dropping them as a DNS, hosting, or payment services client. And it is true that influential bozo editorialists have called for Assange’s head on a platter. But it’s actually quite striking that the U.S. government has not taken more overt steps to pursue Assange. (Joe Lieberman’s ostentatious demands toward Amazon and others may seem different, but he is “just” a Senator – he has no more authority to enforce US law than you or I.) Perhaps more is yet to come. And perhaps some of the problems WIkileaks has experienced of late, such as denial of service attacks, are the result of some US government-sponsored action. And maybe US officials haveused threats and intimidation to force private entities to abandon Wikileaks. But so far, this seems unclear at best. Might the lack of official government action so far be evidence that the government is choosing the path you suggest? That is, they have chosen not to

  3. Hector Says:

    question, if prior to the Iraq invasion someone would have leaked documents from lets say, the US representative to the UN and say, Colin Powell and these (God help us leaked) documents clearly said that really there were no WMD (notwithstanding the artists impressions) and that therer was no contact between Sadam and OBL , but that regardless if this we have to find an excuse to kick Sadam’s ass all the way to the gallows, would the US and its other countries go to war, this simple leak would have saved 90000 Iraqis plus many soldiers. so for you all the bleeding hearts who defend the lies and outright deceit from governments, I suggest that you make mein kampf your bed time reading, because you do not deserve any better.Mind you, the US would have attacked anyway as that is the nature of the beast.

  4. What To Say about Wikileaks « RecoveringFed Says:

    […] What To Say about Wikileaks December 7, 2010 Now that Clay Shirkey has posted the following on Wikileaks, there’s very little left for me to say. Shirky expresses I hope the discomfort […]

  5. Wikileaks saga escalating in Australia | Asian Correspondent Says:

    […] answer.  (One of the most balanced and rational perspectives on these issues I've seen to date is this one by US writer Clay Shirky.)  In many ways it is unhelpful that there has been so much focus specifically on Assange, as […]

  6. John Hasler Says:

    Roger Asheton makes case on a false premise. Wiki-leaks is not an individual, it is an organisation, and as such should have the same rights and responsibilities of any other organisation.

    As to his argument that Tax = Theft and War = Murder – Maybe he could look at it another way, the law allows an individual to kill in justifiable self defence. International law obsentiously makes the same allowances for states.

    As to tax being theft, does the grocer commit theft when he/she expects to be paid for the food you buy to eat?
    The state offers you a relatively safe environment to live, work and raise a family and that costs money. Tax is the price of civilisation, the alternative is a world or viking style rape and pillage.

  7. Jack C Says:

    Getting bogged down in the specifics, while compelling for a variety of reasons, seems to me akin to focusing on Napster in the media piracy debate. Specific actors are less important as struggling entities as they are symptoms of an underlying undeniable and irrevocable change. In fact, the specifics here seem to follow, fairly predictably, along the same path that other complacent legacy institutions seem to travel as they realize they’ve been left behind. If the pattern continues, the short haul will be more painful.

    As to the philosophical issue, which for good or bad is essentially moot, I wonder how treasonous an act can be, when it can be done so easily. Is the act of leaking state secrets inherently more objectionable than the failure to safeguard them?

  8. In Pennsylvania Says:

    As usual when people are getting their information from biased US media, there are several misconceptions to address.

    First, the US government has no intrinsic right to secrecy. In fact, it must account for whatever information it has deemed secret in court, if challenged, and pay fines if found to have misused the secrets label. Read the Freedom of Information Act.

    Second, the right to publish “state secrets” has been well-protected by the courts traditionally. It is separate from the act of leaking them, which is a much murkier issue.

    Third, it is completely plausible that a government operate with very little secrecy. Obviously the locations of the nuclear subs, and Obama’s cell phone number need to be secret. But there’s no reason for the mass overuse of the secrecy label as it stands, except to relieve the government of the burden of following its own laws.

    Fourth, as the article states, this pursuit of wikileaks shows the US to be grossly hypocritical when it comes to other countries and their restrictions on the media. But most Americans subscribe to arrogant exceptionalism, and only believe laws should apply to those they dislike, so the irony is lost on them.

  9. Marco Says:

    Of course all those leakages are illegitimate and effectively criminal. But they expose crimes, lies and cover ups of a much worse nature which have cost the lives of many innocent people. And in the court of human justice and reason that’s what counts.

  10. Taribo Says:

    Dear Clay, I respect your “conflicted”position, which comes from a very deep reflection about the issue. During these times of radical social change it is a risk to fall into quick enthusiasms, and even worse would be to become a “transparency fundamentalist”
    Nevertheless, this is also the time to make a strong choice. Do we want to slow down the change or to accelerate it? I chose to stay with the ones that want to accelerate it, and I am supporting Wikileaks without any doubt. The revolutions in history have not been achieved following the law.

  11. Chris Says:

    Just a question: any person dying because of Wikileaks: was he or she worth it? And does that make Assange a murderer or not?

    For myself: I refuse to pull any trigger…

  12. Roger Asheton Says:

    “Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to.”

    This is the the place where your philosophy falls to pieces. You equate the things that individuals do with what the state does, as if they are on an equal footing morally and ethically. They are not.

    The state should not be able to do anything that a person should is not able to do morally or ethically.

    That means that it should not be able to ‘tax’ people (when individuals do this, it is called ‘theft’), it should not be able ‘to go to war’ (when individuals do this, it is called murder) and it should not be able to conscript people to wage war (when individuals use the labor of others without consent, this is called ‘slavery’).

    Until you recognise that the state cannot obtain rights and powers from the electorate that the members of the electorate do not have to give, your personal philosophy will be irrational, illogical, inconsistent and violent, and by being a supporter of ‘democracy’, you too become a supporter of violence.

    Of course, there are many people who believe that violence is good, justified and acceptable. They are willing to pay for it to be done to others, and sleep at night believing that their actions are pure and not evil. You may or may not be one of those people.

    If you claim not to be a violent person, then you must accept that the state has no right to tax anyone, because that is theft. The state has no right to initiate any sort of force against anyone for any reason, just as you yourself do not have that right. By doing this, you reject the idea of democracy, and the idea that majority rule justifies all actions of the state.

    Wikileaks is a problem because the state is illegitimate, and its negotiations are criminal. The agents of the state negotiate for the carving up of people’s property in a way that you or I would not even dare to contemplate.

    Witness the negotiations over Climate Change, which revolve around how much stolen money (taxes) are going to be redistributed to third world countries. If the monies were not stolen, and all of this was being done with the consent of the governed, there would be no need for secrecy at all, just as in shareholder meetings, the members of a company are invited to deliberate what should be done with the assets of a firm.

    The same goes with the Federal Reserve, which recently was forced to divulge where its ‘bail out’ money (printed out of thin air, devaluing the savings of all americans – the inflation tax) went. It was given, in secret, to Harley Davidson and many other companies and even foreign banks. If all of this were entirely legitimate, there would once again, be no need for secrecy.

    You do not have the luxury of remaining wilfully ignorant while the state that you explicitly support does violence in your name and with your money. You cannot justify this murder, theft and suppression of people’s rights and say that you are a reasonable man. You are either a violent statist, or you are a moral and ethical man; you cannot be both at the same time.

    Wikileaks is doing the world a great service; not only are we finding out about the abhorrent behaviour of the criminals who pretend to run the world, but we are also getting a close look at the true nature of just about everyone by asking them what they think about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. In this case, you appear to be a violent statist. Newt Gingrich and the other imbeciles who call Assange a ‘traitor’, say he is guilty of espionage, and who call for his assassination, demonstrate that they are not only murderously violent, but that they have no understanding of the law, or the definition of ‘traitor’ and ‘espionage’.

    I really do hope that this episode causes you to reconsider your philosophy. You cannot be for ‘democracy’ (which is mob rule plain and simple) and for liberty at the same time. You cannot be against violence and theft and for the state at the same time.

    You have absolutely no choice in the matter. Its like being a little bit pregnant; there is no such thing. Either you are an anti freedom violent supporter of theft, or you are for Liberty. You are either for Wikileaks, or you are against it.

    Perhaps Murray Rothbard’s great book on Liberty can help you:

    as a computer specialist, it will be simple for you to understand.

    Contradictions are not acceptable to people who base their lives on reason, and in the case of Wikileaks and the sate, your contradictory philosophy ends in people being killed, their money being stolen from them, and the truth being suppressed.

  13. Wikileaks and the Long Haul Says:

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  15. WikiLeaks Hurts the Good Guys, Too Says:

    Are you sure the government wouldn’t prosecute newspapers for releasing classified documents?

    I agree with your sentiments here. My fear is that what the government will learn is that it shouldn’t keep any documents or e-mail records at all, which is going to make it really hard to do investigations of government action in the future.

  16. gg Says:

    Fact is that secrets are hard to keep.Cork out of the bottle. post-it-all 1-to:world. Technology is a thread, it always was.. it always was unstoppable.
    Maybe this technological evolution is a good thing. CrCrises and the cable gate shows government is not so much in control of the global society. We need proper steering mechanism to survive the global society we created with technology. Whould we have gone to Iraq over Weapons of mass destruction is we were part of the diplomatic cable discussion ? Will reading the cables prevent us from another stupid global decision based upon wrong leader ego’s/shortvision ? Probably our global society is in the long run better of with more transparency. Shutting down the discussion/web is not an option. Its like banning books.
    You hackers made a point. You don’t need to be a stupid suicide soldier. The Press is really slow, on the core discussion julian asks for. Give the world some time to adapt and don,t spread AE21 files anymore. Showing military facilities is bad. Responsibility starts with yourself.

  17. Gary Says:

    Refreshing to find a place where, for the most part, issues are being thought through carefully and thoroughly. The focus sometimes given to notions of “centralized” power and “decentralized” power are very interesting. Yesterday, I found this statement by Umberto Eco to be rather astute:

    When “the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hacker’s grasp, the surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular.”

    It comes from this paragraph:

    “The Orwellian prophecy came completely true once the powers that be could monitor every phone call made by the citizen, every hotel he stayed in, every toll road he took and so on and so forth. The citizen became the total victim of the watchful eye of the state. But when it transpires, as it has now, that even the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hacker’s grasp, the surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular. The state has its eye on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least every hacker – the citizens’ self-appointed avenger – can pry into the state’s every secret.”

  18. Roger Wegener Says:

    This is the post of someone who is having *two bob each way*. No cred.

    What exactly is wrong with telling the truth? And why can’t the USA deal with that? All Wikileaks is doing is telling the rest of us about the corrupt things that your leaders have been up to – how is that a bad thing?

    Oh I forgot – you lot think you run the world.

    Truth is you don’t anymore – and this little tantrum over Wikileaks shows us all why you won’t ever again.

  19. Google Fashion Show, Umberto Eco Discusses Wikileaks | Products & Tech News Says:

    […] Wikileaks and the Long Haul In the US, however, the government has a "heavy burden" for engaging in prior restraint of even secret documents, an established principle since New York Times Co. vs. The United States*, when the Times published the Pentagon Papers. If we want a different answer for Wikileaks, we need a different legal framework first. […]

  20. Gijs Says:

    How does one see legal action happening considering:
    – Wikilieaks is not a US organization
    – Wikileaks has not committed or participated in any crimes _inside_ the USA
    – Wikileaks front man is not a US citizen, nor does he reside in the US
    – The US government does not have jurisdiction outside the US

    The notion of the US government that they are or should be able to legally address Wikileaks is scary and appalling at the same time. Add to that, the US Supreme Court ruling that leaking can/is against the law, but publishing the leak is not, and we find ourselves in a situation where apparently the US government feels it can not only ignore international law, but also its own laws when it suits their purpose.

    Wikileaks is an organization registered in Iceland. Hence, the ONLY laws Wikileaks have to comply to are those of Iceland, and anyone who has a problem with Wikileaks should test their complaints in the Icelandic Court of Law.

    This is what the souverainity of states is all about; the ability to define laws and make decisions, without other countries butting in and forcing their laws, policies and opinions on to another state.

  21. Dan Blaker Says:

    This is an excellent, balanced piece but I think it (and the subsequent commentary) misses an important historical perspective: that our current global civilizations are more free and just than in the history of this planet. Obviously there is oppression and corruption; but on balance, humans are more comfortable, less murderous, less hungry and less sexist than ever before.

    As an anglo-American male, I am almost entirely free to live an ethical life without any threats from the government. Most of the commenters I’ve seen here are presumably in a similar position. So here we are, wealthy and safe, driven to comment by our interest in the philosophical concepts involved in this issue; and yet among the 60+ commenters here there is nothing close to a consensus about even the laws on our books.

    Combine this divisiveness with the never-ending barrage of information that we face in even the developing world, and you have a populace which is barely governable, much less capable of informed self-governance! And yet we’re clamoring for MORE information about what our government does “in our name” so that we might second-guess every diplomatic feint or foreign aid decision?

    The problem is complexity, not secrecy. I don’t see how WikiLeaks helps solve that problem.

  22. Steve Ellwood Says:

    ” I also like the fact that the SHIELD Law makes it clear what’s at stake: the law proposes new restraints on publishers, and would apply to the New York Times and The Guardian as it well as to Wikileaks. ”

    I’m rather amused that you appear to welcome the suggestion that a US law should apply to a UK newspaper in this country; from a UK perspective we already have a hugely unequal respect for each other’s laws.

    Say, how many terrorists has the easy extradition from the UK gained the US; how many non-terrorists have been hooked out to face your legal system.

  23. cglassey Says:

    1) WikiLeaks does not have a legal right to the data they are publishing, it belongs to the U.S. Government.

    2) The people in the U.S. have elected representative who made laws which allows our diplomatic service to keep secrets. WikiLeaks thinks these laws are of no consequence.

    3) Diplomacy cannot be conducted (and has never been conducted) by agents who were forced to reveal the information they sent back to their home government. Such communications have always been private and for very good reasons. Sometimes they help prevent wars but even when they don’t, WikiLeaks has no authority, no moral right to decide that these communications should be visible to the whole world. In a nut shell, who appointed WikiLeaks the new rule maker of international diplomacy? No one. WikiLeaks is engaged upon a policy with far reaching and potentially negative consequences without approval or consent from anyone.

    4) In the U.S. we have a Freedom of Information Act. If WikiLeaks has discovered a document(s) which really should be made known to the public, they can file a petition to have the document(s) declassified. There is a legal process for this. WikiLeaks has chosen to ignore this law and this process.

    5) I have no wish to live in a world where self-appointed “techno-elites” like the WikiLeaks crew can wreck U.S. diplomatic efforts just because they feel like it. You may feel that that a “stateless world” is a good thing or that the U.S. Government is an evil monster which needs to be “taken down” but I do not. WikiLeaks itself is a secretive organization with no “oversight” committee, in fact it looks a great deal like a dictator (Assange) surrounded by group of minions. What stops WikiLeaks from making up documents out of whole cloth simply to further an agenda, either from themselves or some 3rd party? Nothing. Who can tell if 1% or 10% or 50% of the documents they release are fakes? Newspapers are on-going concerns with reputations to protect and a strong desire to survive into the future, which is why they are careful in the stories they run (not to mention the code of Journalistic ethics which nominally exists in reputable news rooms). WikiLeaks looks to me like it is driving off a cliff at high speed.

  24. Farhad Mohit Says:

    I agree that we need to maintain WikiLeaks in existence long enough for a legal framework to come around for handling such a potentially useful service…

    Along those lines, how about the following idea:

    Wikileaks should let us ordinary people review, redact and release one random cable each.

    I have the benefits of this idea laid out in a bit more detail here:

  25. George Lesica Says:

    I don’t see the problem with total transparency. The fact that changing one’s mind is seen as weakness is a result of the fact that we keep so much secret. If all the government’s dealings were thrown wide open people would come to understand how things work (and the uglier parts would fade away).

    The only secrets government should be allowed to keep are very specific bits of practical information (nuclear launch codes, email account passwords and the like).

  26. Sonicsuns Says:

    Good post.

    “I don’t, however, believe in total transparency”

    Neither does WikiLeaks. That’s why they do redactions, because too much transparency would harm innocent people.

  27. Ian Waring Says:

    I thought the final paragraph at was poignant:

    In a memorandum entitled “Transparency and Open Government” addressed to the heads of Federal departments and agencies and posted on, President Obama instructed that “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.” The Administration would be wise to heed his words — and to remember how badly the vindictive prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg ended for the Nixon Administration. And American reporters, Pulitzer Prizes and all, should be ashamed for joining in the outraged chorus that defends a burgeoning secret world whose existence is a threat to democracy.

  28. schomsko Says:

    I think your premise is weak: “For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change”. This is true for bazaars but not for supermarkets. In modern markets there is often more than one seller and more than one product that does the job, hence we do not have to negotiate with merely a single seller, but we can choose between offers. Only because of transparency the seller knows this and will demand a more realistic price even if no explicit negotiations have taken place. This is how free markets work.
    Even in politics there is always more than one option. In having transparency there will be less negotiations and more deals and advancement in shorter time.

  29. Ghimmy51 Says:

    The bottom line is no government or society can allow one individual, self appointed, to prescribe policy for international relations and disclosure of confidential interagency diplomatic and military information.

  30. Ghimmy51 Says:

    With the latest publication of global facilities vital to United States interests and military contingency plans for the defense of Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from possible Russian agression, Wikileaks has crossed the line from open news to enemy agent. The site has to be taken down even if it means physically destroying a million servers. I suggest Quantanamo Bay facilities have space available for the principals of Wikileaks. A Presidential order for capture or kill is justified to protect the vital interests of the nation and people. Defense may indeed outweigh rights in time of emergency when under attack.

  31. A.Z. Caton Says:

    Very well considered — and well written — thoughts on this sticky wicket. I do take some exception to the apparent assumption that all the woes that have befallen Wikileaks are the result of government actions. I suspect there are a great many freelance vigilantes in the mix, people who have taken it upon themselves to make Assante’s life miserable.

    The same porosity that made Wikileaks possible (not counting the patently illegal action by the insider who expropriated the data in the first place) makes Wikileaks vulnerable. Live by the internet, die by the internet.

  32. Cofdkinnr Says:

    Why can politicians get away with instigation to murder, when a private person would be charged immediately? Why aren’t there people in the streets protesting civil rights being trampled on in the USA?

  33. Jordan Says:


    You have pretty much summarized my thoughts about the scandal, though I would add to your assertion that two wrongs don’t make a right: our technology infrastructure and capabilities are far outstripping our ability to catch up with the rule of law. There will be cases (if there haven’t already been) where a qualified jury cannot be found to try some criminal charges.

    I admire your willingness to take on the issue itself – I am fascinated by the “disgruntled employee” aspect myself, and feel oddly different whether we are discussing Wikileaks data about the US Government or BofA proprietary data. (Maybe because I can choose not to do business with BofA, but the US Government is central to my identity, as it were.)

  34. Jake Says:

    @Dan H: “Would the NYT have published what WikiLeaks does?” – um, yeah they would have. What’s more, they did, along with The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde.

  35. Jimmy Says:

    Dan H, but the NYT DID publish the WikiLeaks documents, and continues to do so. Just because they weren’t the primary source doesn’t change this fact. Therefore, your point in this regards has no basis.

    And since when is “transparency” (as you put it), not enough of a moral and/or ethical argument? This seems contradictory on your part. What was more imperative than transparency in the Pentagon papers?

    And as for Assange’s penchant for being secretive, I think the extreme and frighteningly ignorant reaction to these documents – from political and media heavyweights who should know better – has more than vindicated his need for it.

  36. Owen Densmore Says:

    Hard to argue with your point that a balance of power, with clear and just laws, define the boundary of freedom of information. But note how he is also clear that we have no such balance, nor reasonable laws.

    I am interested in hearing nuanced discussions. But no longer amongst politicians. Or power brokers and industries. They have lost their place and squandered their right to lead. Its us now.

    For now, therefore, I think its time we do our best at empowering ourselves. Wikileaks, tho questionable, should not be crushed without a hearing. I suggest your readers investigate the Wikileaks mirror project:

    If wrong, we’ll find out and pull the plug. If right, we will have begun far more serious conversations about our liberties.

  37. Leigh Says:

    My eldest brother (who has lived in SE Asia for over twenty years and has a true basis to understand the impact of a statement of this nature) said on FB with regards to wikileaks….

    “Transparency is the oxygen that kills corruption.”

  38. andy adkins Says:

    (rhetorically) Are other international actors encouraged or discouraged from actively controlling the dissemination of sensitive materials to their reading publics by the content of the publicized discomforts and intentions to obtain remedy expressed by U.S. government officials?

    Secrecy and the self-interests of nation-states are always inimical to the aspirations of conceptual leadership because its prospects for success depend upon social experimentations that result from progressively disinhibited learning.

    (there is a never to be heard back story to the advice missing from cabinet meetings)

  39. Northcon Says:

    Wikileaks publishing secret material is one thing – he has made no oath and is not a citizen of the US so there is no treason, the person(s) leaking this have made oaths and are subjected to laws of the US including treason. If someone is so moved to ignore their oaths and risk the consequences by leaking this info, then that may be a noble or stupid decision base on the circumstances – but don’t be surprised by those consequences when they appear.

  40. Sedicious Says:

    Whither Civilisation of the Dialogue?. Do you want our government to continue to propagandize us, or do you want to demand that they engage us as mature citizens?

  41. Sedicious Says:

    I was just about to say exactly what Alberto Cottica just said: this conflict *can* be resolved, by us all becoming more mature about official positions and political negotiation. And this issue of our collective immaturity, especially in the United States, is about much more than just this issue of state transparency, it is something that needs to be resolved for much deeper reasons.

    I know it can be scary, but this disillusionment we’re witnessing as the Wizard’s curtain falls is a necessary step toward us becoming a functional global polity able to transcend our parochial and nationalistic self-images and become worldly cosmopolitans. There is no need to fight this.

  42. Why Is the Government Waging a Doomed (and Illegal) War Against WikiLeaks? « Bear Market News Says:

    […] But he’s not conflicted about how the United States ought to respond. If we pass a law criminalizing what WikiLeaks does, that’s one thing — even if he doesn’t like the law. But ignoring the law is quite another: […]

  43. Cefn Hoile Says:

    Is it just me that is alarmed that internet history can be rewritten by fiat?*/

  44. Roger Lamb Says:

    An excellent piece. As in most things relating to human affairs, temporality prevails. What is good, overall, as it stands at the moment, is not necessarily good, overall, in the long run. So, what stands probably won’t stand as it is for very long. But, yes, correctives should not be extra-legal.

  45. Dan H Says:

    You may be tired of the comments, and this may have been said elsewhere, but I think one of the things that you’re missing is two very old notions: judgment and restraint. Would the NYT have published what WikiLeaks does? Probably not. Why?

    Do you remember Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers? There was a moral argument for releasing that material (or at lest Ellsberg made a moral argument); even if you disagreed with him you can do so respectfully. Is there any such moral reason other than “transparency” behind Mr. Assange’s revelations? If so, they’ve escaped me. Furthermore, I find it compelling that someone who is such a fan of openness seems to be relatively secretive.

  46. JoeRandom Says:


    Perhaps we need to define a few term to help define the nature of the argument?

    Privacy = My personal life (EG: what goes on in my bedroom)
    Secrecy = What governments get up to in the back rooms

    I humbly suggest that more privacy is a good thing, and that more secrecy is a bad thing.

    It seems odd to me that our elected leaders seem quite happy to deprive us of our privacy and yet when their secrecy is harmed or threatened they lash out with howls of indignation and death threats.

    That said I believe there is a place for privacy in diplomatic situations, but it’s when secrecy enter the equation that things go bad.
    Just like if the privacy of my bedroom becomes something secret then there is probably something wrong.

    Some posters here seem angry that the US is the current target of wikileaks work, where were your howls of outrage when it was Kenya?

    This issue is bigger that this one story; our governments over the last decade have been up to shenanigans when it comes to our rights.
    The UK wanted to be able to hold suspects for 90 days without charge, I believe a less severe 28 days was eventually enacted, but this is only one example amongst many around the world.

    It’s no surprise that Politicians are less trusted than second hand car salesmen.

  47. LizM Says:

    Would you be less confused and conflicted if he had dumped the five gigs of bank fraud data first “detailing an ecology of corruption” ..because nationalism blinds a lot of people to the crimes of their own states.

    Perhaps you would be less confused if your money was involved…

    I think if wikileaks had dumped the BP and the BofA data first – and the cablegate memos later – We wouldn’t even be having a debate.

  48. Wikileaks' latest bombshells - Page 3 - The Liverpool Way Says:

    […] to do this time, we'll have thrown out free speech in this lawless frenzy. Like Clay Shirky, I'm deeply ambivalent about some of what WikiLeaks does, and what this affair portends. Governments need to keep some […]

  49. Geheim, geheim, geheim « The Difference Says:

    […] den Punkt bringt den Schwenk im Meinungsbild Clay Shirkey. Der erste Satz seiner klugen Reflexion zu Wikileaks und Nutzen und Unsinn von Geheimnistuerei in seinem Blog beginnt bezeichnenderweise mit dem Satz: […]

  50. Lestrem Says:

    The piece you’ve written is a calm, serious and democratic one making some salient points. Thank you for it.
    What is interests me about the situation, is the response of the US government: how it seems to behave as if it was being advised by Rumsfeld rather than taking a moral stance to defend democratic values.

    Barrack Obama led me to believe that morality would be part of his government’s discourse. I can’t vote in the US, so it doesn’t matter.

    It seems that the Wikileaks affair is beginning to reveal the US Government as a sort of Creon and Assange as a not yet dead Polynices, while people with liberal sympathies, conflicted by the process, are standing about waiting to discover an Antigone to tell us where to look. Or maybe my attributions need shuffling.

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