There are three general lines of thought expressed around the Wikileaks saga. The first is condemnatory. Governments, led by the US, say Julian Assange and his colleagues are risking the lives of others and damaging the effectiveness of international diplomacy in respect of some of the trickiest parts of the world. The second is laudatory; to celebrate freedom of information without reservation – to view the release of sensitive government information as A Good per se. The third is uncertainty. Whisteblowers play an important function in any democratic society, yet it’s hard to see how Wikileaks can be the best judges of what may and what may not be the consequences of the release of particular information. What happens next? I guess I’m in that third category.
Wherever you stand, it seems to me that there’s been too little said so far about what Wikileaks means for the future of official government data classification and management. There’s a host of other questions lurking beneath that too. Like will governments in future choose to accept that people will know a lot more about the sometimes difficult-to-stomach compromises which nevertheless keep citizens safe? And will those citizens accept that the price of these new information flows is that they will need to face up more that before to the moral contradictions and compromises which lie at the core of they way they live? And how will private sector companies behave? For example, Amazon and others have been quick to de-activate their Wikileaks domains, and that’s understandable for the moment. But their reason – that Wikileaks may be breaching copyright – looks very thin. First off, documents produced by government servants are specifically excluded from copyright protection there. Second, and more important, are they ruling out whistleblowing full stop? Of course not. They’re just getting their umbrellas up and breaking their necks looking at everyone else.
The US government chose to give access to sensitive information, via Siprnet, to perhaps millions of government servants. It’s not to condemn the US administration to say that they missed the significance of the digital native. I think everyone administration’s in the same boat, to be honest. This isn’t my original point, it’s my mate Martin’s, about young people joining the army, entering government service, and not just in the US, are through digital media empowered in ways beyond the establishment’s understanding. Their values are still being shaped, often without the compromises required by mortgages, kids, all the other stuff. Maybe they show no respect. Maybe they don’t get enough in. But it is most certainly a two-way street.
Whatever, there’s no way to constrain the Wikileaks phenomenon. Governments know they have to live with it. Things have changed. There’s no point closing a site or trying to go back to paper. That’s just the way it is. I truly hope that people will rise to the challenge – I think they will. It’s not exactly Hobbitland protected by dark Striders. But I tell you this; it’s sometimes close.
In the last few months, via the All Party Group on the Digital Economy, I’ve met a lot of people all governments should speak to about this stuff. So they should.