Today's date:
Winter 2011

WikiLeaks and the Perils of Extreme Glasnost

Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the author of Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in December about the implications of WikiLeaks.

NPQ | The most recent WikiLeaks cache is not your father’s Pentagon Papers. Like a neutron bomb of the information age, it has indiscriminately destroyed good diplomacy and duplicity alike across a broad spectrum of political cultures.

Should there be limits to the kind of extreme glasnost represented by WikiLeaks? If so, by what criteria do we responsibly draw them?

Evgeny Morozov | The more I learn about Julian Assange’s philosophy, the more I come to believe that he is not really rooting to destroy secrecy or make transparency the primary good in social relations. His is a fairly conventional—even if a bit odd—political quest for “justice.”

As far as I can understand Assange’s theory—and I don’t think that it’s terribly coherent or well thought out—he believes that one way to achieve justice is to minimize the power of governments to do things that their citizens do not know of and may not approve of if they do. There is nothing in this theory that heralds the end of secrecy across the entire social spectrum: Citizens, at least nominally, are entitled to go about their own business; it’s the government that is the main target.

Here we mustn’t forget that Assange made a name for himself in computer circles by being one of the key developers of a software application that helped users—and particularly human rights activists in authoritarian regimes—to encrypt and protect their data from the eyes of the authorities. So I don’t think that Assange opposes “secrecy” altogether; for him, it’s really all about keeping the government in check.

Frankly, I don’t know to what extent he had a chance to really come up with a theory about the role that secrecy plays in international relations and diplomacy. Even if he had read all the cables, he would need to know the world much more intimately than the CIA to really assess the impact of the planned release. For example, it’s very tough to predict whether such files would trigger a war in the Caucasus without knowing the politics of Armenia and Azerbaijan....

So while we can continue trying to understand the limits of “publicness” in diplomacy, I am not sure that Assange would disagree with us on any of this. It just so happens that he has a vision for changing the world and he believes that, if implemented, this vision might dwarf all these current harms to diplomacy.

Only if we, or he himself, knew his theoretical template of a totally free information society could we then draw limits on what is acceptable or not.

NPQ | What is the likely geopolitical outcome down the road from this latest WikiLeaks episode?

Will it pit not only more closed societies against open societies, but also open societies with secrets against the extreme glasnostics—a kind of three-tiered clash of information cultures?

In the end, will it make closed societies more open and open societies more closed? Or, will it make everyone more closed?

Morozov | I think it will be intelligence gathering—and especially intelligence sharing—rather than diplomacy per se that would suffer the most. The reason why the current batch of cables got released in the first place was lax security; with a few million people having access to these files, it’s really surprising that it took so many years for someone like Bradley Manning to actually release them to Assange. But this could have happened even before WikiLeaks took off the ground a few years ago; these cables may have just been sent to the Guardian or El Pais directly. So in all likelihood we’ll see a more granular approach to setting permissions as to who gets access to what kind of data. Ambassadors will keep talking.

This, however, is not the most interesting geopolitical aspect to the WikiLeaks story. What I found most interesting in the days after the files were released was the pressure that various American and some European politicians tried to exert on various Internet intermediaries that were offering their services to WikiLeaks. Some of those efforts paid off—with Amazon and PayPal dropping WikiLeaks as a client. This, of course, looks very suspicious to many computer geeks, who are already often very suspicious of governments.

What I think might happen is that WikiLeaks and Assange in particular will emerge as leaders of a new political “geek” movement that would be built on the principles of absolute “Internet freedom,” transparency, very permissive copyright law, and so on. This movement has already been brewing globally—especially in Europe, where various local cells of the Pirate Party have proved remarkably strong. It’s quite possible that the “hunt for WikiLeaks” would further radicalize young people and make them join the fight for the “Free Internet,” however they choose to interpret it.

This may be wonderful news—especially if they renounce violence and start participating in mainstream politics instead, thus becoming something of a digital equivalent to the Green Movement in Europe. The other option, alas, is far less amenable: It’s possible that if Assange is really treated badly and unjustly by the authorities—and possibly even tried like a “terrorist” as some prominent US politicians have suggested—this would nudge the movement toward violent forms of resistance. Given that many of these people are tech-literate and that more and more of our public infrastructure is digital, this could be a significant impediment to the growth of the global economy: Just think of the potential losses if Visa and MasterCard cannot process online payments because of some mysterious cyber-attacks on their servers.

Whichever way things go, I think it’s pretty obvious that the US government’s ability to use the Internet to accomplish anything on its foreign policy agenda has been severely damaged.

The rather aggressive manner in which pundits and politicians in Washington have reacted to the release of the cables would make many otherwise staunch supporters of the “Internet freedom” policy reconsider their attitudes towards the US.

I don’t know about the likely impact on Russia, China and some other states that some like to call “closed.” The reason why the cables made so much noise in America is because everyone expects America to behave—and it has the nominally free press and the vibrant civil society that allow Assange’s accusations to stay in the game for at least a week. I don’t think that this would necessarily be the case in Russia, where both the media and the civil society are tightly controlled by the Kremlin (and the Internet might soon be, too), while everyone’s expectations of government corruption are already so high that few cables could worsen it.

Also, as we have seen in the Middle East, many governments have no qualms about blocking access to WikiLeaks and preventing their media from covering the story; it’s hard to say whether it’s as much of a salient issue with the elites in China as it is with the elites in the US. In short, it’s the democratic states that are going to suffer the most from WikiLeaks-style forced transparency.

NPQ | How does the US pursuit of Assange stack up with the view Hillary Clinton espoused a year ago at the Newseum in Washington that Internet freedom is our “national brand”?

Morozov | It’s inconceivable that on the one-year anniversary of her talk that Hillary Clinton would be able to deliver a speech on Internet freedom as pompous and starry-eyed as she did in January 2010. I never believed that Clinton actually very much pondered the implications and the assumptions implicit in her stance on “Internet freedom.”

The reality is that even before WikiLeaks, the focus of the domestic Internet debate was all about demanding more control of it—whether it’s to track Internet pirates or cyber-terrorists or cyber-bullies. However, in the context of foreign policy, the debate is somehow always about “Internet freedom” and opposing the greater Internet control by the likes of China and Iran—all of it as if these other governments are somehow doing something that America itself is not doing in the domestic context.

Some of this may simply have to do with the widespread Western tendency to glamorize the Internet in authoritarian countries—and especially Internet users—many of whom are often imagined as some kind of digital equivalents of Andrei Sakharov, when they are just regular blokes streaming kinky videos from YouTube.

The WikiLeaks saga has brought many of these contradictions into sharper context, but they were already clearly visible before. Before he achieved fame, Assange was already surrounded by some very, very smart technologists—and now he has many more admirers in the tech world. To the extent to which Clinton’s Internet-freedom agenda relies on their coding skills and brains to produce effective anti-censorship tools that can work in Iran and China, I think it’s in the State Department’s best interest not to make the kind of irresponsible and aggressive statements it has been making about Assange so far.

Personally, I don’t think that the Internet should be treated like some sacred cow that should defy all regulation. All of this will become clear to politicians (and hopefully even to some geek activists) once the next genocide in some remote Third World country is perpetrated by folks armed with GPS-equipped smartphones that also enable them to listen to incendiary messages on the local radio. I’m sure that this would be the moment when many decision-makers would regret not having some kind of a “kill switch” over the Internet. Maybe this won’t happen—and maybe a “kill switch” is impossible; or maybe it would undermine human progress so much that the genocide is a risk we would be forced to accept. But I do think that it’s an important debate that needs to be had rather than be settled in some talk of the absolute universal principle of “Internet freedom,” as for example Bernard Kouchner did when he was French foreign minister.

NPQ | Finally, when speaking of limits on information, do you see a conceptual link with the controversy swirling around Facebook for, as some charge, peddling private information under the mantle of social networking?

Morozov | Well, there is a great irony in the fact that the very same people who so loudly demand open governments are often also the ones who value their privacy and hate to be tracked, even if tracking is relatively innocuous. It is really no consolation to anyone that the power of groups like WikiLeaks to challenge the state is increasingly matched by the power of the state to keep track of what its citizens are doing, either by gathering all of this data on their own or by simply contracting out to a myriad of small and nimble data-mining agencies.

The latter option bothers me especially because it’s far less monitored or understood by the public: We all get scared when we find out that the government knows what we browse online—but we are far less concerned about some private company knowing this. The question we rarely ask is: Why assume that the government won’t simply purchase this data from the private sector rather than compile it on its own?

This only proves that the Internet can have both an empowering and a disempowering effect on democratization—often even simultaneously. I am not sure if Assange and his associates actually grasp the fact that the only effective way to rein in the excesses of Facebook and Google when it comes to data protection is to have a strong government that can act decisively and autonomously. It’s also possible, of course, to simply find enough leaks about both companies and ruin them by disclosing their financial statements a quarter too early—but this won’t be a very responsible move. What is still not clear to me is how exactly WikiLeaks would be able to reconcile the need for a strong state to defend citizens’ privacy with its desire to minimize the power of the state by weakening its ability to profit from secrecy.