Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wikileaks: My Two Cents

I have a perspective on this issue (based in part on observations I made when I was living in Germany) that I see rarely voiced—that's why I'm posting, even though I'm late to the party.

I think Assange's argument for total transparency contains a basic fallacy: That when you take one part out of a dynamic system, everything else stays the same. In this case, that when all communication becomes public, it will result in complete transparency. I think this is not the case: If people want to keep their communication secret in plain view, they start to speak in code. Result: Less transparency! Moreover, the communication is now harder to interpret.

More in my comment...


Ulrich said...

At some point, Germany passed a law that forbade employers to say anything negative in letters of evaluation about former employees. Result: Negative comments were couched in positive terms, which were part of a code tailored to the purpose. For example: "I have had lively discussions with Mr. So-and-so" meant "Mr. So-and-so is a pain in the neck and has a big mouth." Which is to say, the negative comments did not disappear--they were simple harder to detect. The attempt to gain total transparency led to a loss of it--one can dispute an openly negative comment, possibly in court; one cannot complain about a seemingly positive comment.

Another example: Black markets. They arise when a government tries to keep tight control over a product and its price. When the discrepancy between real value and price becomes big enough, a black market will emerge. Result: In an attempt to gain total control, the government loses all control. This was the case in some of the satellite states of the former Soviet Union, where visitors could change money on a black market at rates that reflected more realistically the value of the currency.

In all of these examples, a system was treated a static--i.e. as one that will not change overall when a part is interfered with--when, in fact, it was dynamic--i.e. capable of adapting to a changed situation (and in a way that ran counter to the intention of the interference).

Heika said...

HI Ulrich, I have to look up the site, but I just read an analysis of Assange's essays--I didn't even know he had written any--in which he lays out his theory of how to bring down a conspiratorial government. And what he says explicitly is that his purpose is not to expose wrong-doing but to make wrong-doing impossible by making secret communication impossible. In a chain of consequences, governments involved in secrecy start shutting down various forms of communication because they are afraid of being outed as has happened in the many Wiki leaks cables. In time, their ability to communicate all but disappears leaving them less powerful.

In a way, we are seeing this very response in the United States with more and more restrictions being proposed on who can see or send what. But what Assange doesn't seem to address is what you propose, that people start using code or double speak to continue doing whatever it is they want to hide. I found this post very interesting and I haven't seen this point made anywhere else.

Ulrich said...

...or, which I haven't mentioned, find ways to communicate that cannot be traced. I think Assange is naive in his belief that one can rely on some sort of automatism: Make everything public and you shut down inter- or intra-governmental communication as we know it.

Besides, I think he's wrong-headed to begin with. I can easily think of situations in which secrecy is of paramount importance; for example, when hostages are being released based on conditions that are meant to remain secret (to allow the hostage takers to save face, or to prevent a dangerous precedent from being set up, or whatever)--it's immoral in my view to sacrifice them on the altar of total transparency. The Ellsworth copies are the counterexample: A government that deliberately lies to its own people should be exposed.

To me, selectivity is the key, which is diametrically opposed to Assange's automatism.

Don't get me wrong: I'm absolutely not on the side of the powers that be--I'm appalled by the willingness of IN giants to censure their customers, and proactively, to boot. It is with quite a bit of Schadenfreude that I see them scramble right now. The deck is stacked in favor of them, though...