18 Feb 2011: The Power and Perils of Wikileaks

Coverage of the federal election in the past week was briefly interrupted by the WikiLeaks saga.

The international transparency and anti-corruption group roused a media storm when it released a compendium of 91,000 classified US reports on the Afghan war.

Among the revelations are that elements in the Pakistani government have been collaborating with the Taliban and that officials have not been honest about the number and cause of civilian casualties.

WikiLeaks, represented by its Australian editor-in-chief Julian Assange, enables citizens to anonymously leak documents that governments and businesses want to keep secret.

In April, WikiLeaks footage of an American helicopter gunning down civilians in Baghdad made headlines around the world. The group also published the secret list of websites the Australian government plans to ban with its proposed internet filter.

As the capacity of WikiLeaks to dictate and dominate the news cycle grows, it has also become the story. Much of the chatter is from journalists, who have traditionally seen it as a competitor and worried that its commando-style, volunteer-dependent approach might be the future of investigative reporting.

Such fears were ameliorated by the handling of the Afghan war documents: WikiLeaks gave three news organisations early access to the documents, which released them alongside their own coverage and analysis. News chiefs saw this approach as an affirmation of the sifting, annotating and interpreting skills of the “professional journalist”. But amid the backslapping, key moral questions about the WikiLeaks phenomenon have been overlooked.

The group believes transparency brings accountability and secrecy causes corruption. Societies in search of honest institutions and a properly functioning democracy require that powerful governments and corporations put everything on the public record for citizens to analyse and make up their minds. Where they fail in this responsibility, people of conscience must act with organisations such as WikiLeaks to get the truth out.

There is much that is sound in this plan. It is true corruption relies on secrecy and secrecy veils and nurtures corruption. It is correct to say democracy is imperilled when institutions ritually rely on “national security” and “commercial in confidence” to withhold information required to ensure corporate or government integrity.

WikiLeaks also issues challenges to the culture of secrecy itself. The ease and security WikiLeaks provides to leakers and the minimalist nature of the site’s editorial control encourages leaking. The more leaking there is, the greater the recognition among the powerful that no secret is safe. One sane response to this new reality is for institutions to abandon secrecy as their default mode and operate transparently instead.

This is a citizen’s world, one ruled – with a light touch – by organisations such as WikiLeaks, but there will be problems. One obvious one is that occasionally there are legitimate reasons for secrecy and privacy.

It’s no good to say that decisions about this data can be made collectively. Once information is known, it cannot be unknown.

This leaves WikiLeaks to decide. With power comes responsibility and mistakes have been made. Founder Assange says the organisation will review its procedures and react, though the effect on the guiding philosophy of Wikileaks remains to be seen.

Interesting times ahead. Publication History

Will WikiLeaks handle its new power responsibly?, The Sun Herald
1 Aug 2010