WikiLeaks has been gaining publicity and controversy with a flood of new information, including international diplomatic cables. There are two classes of arguments about the consequences of releasing this type of confidential state data. The first class relates to the specific information within the documents. The second class of arguments describe the social, political and societal implications of releasing this sort of confidential data.
The apology for WikiLeaks, absolute transparency, argues for all documents to be publicly available. Proponents of this suggest any information is helpful, even necessary, for the general population to be informed. Then, this information is useful to hold individuals responsible for their work and communications. The most extreme version of this argument suggests we should have access to every written document produced related to affairs of state and the state’s employees. This would be to judge individual and state capacity, performance and decisions.
The second, strategic argument for absolute transparency is that all information should always be completely free and accessible to everyone. This argument suggests that all communications and publications should be universally accessible. There are two parts to this argument.The first is that access to information and knowledge aid the public in making informed decisions about a wider range of situations. The second, that states are implicitly duplicitous and complete freedom of information can mitigate this duplicity. This is the professed view of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. This view, especially in association with Assange’s history, is linked to an anarchist worldview by many commentators. However, freedom of information is inextricable from the modern democratic tradition. WikiLeaks has brought freedom of information into the realm of public discourse along with extensive ‘classified’ documents. The extent of information that should be freely accessible to protect individual freedom, while protecting state security is a challenging debate.
The operational and tactical arguments against the release of recent WikiLeaks suggest there are no extreme revelations about state policies or extreme departures from ostensible state policy revealed in recent WikiLeaks. This suggests specific documents may be embarrassing, offensive, undiplomatic and surprising to some.Yet, some suggest although these leaks are a challenge for public relations (internally) and disclosure of tactics (externally) there is little information not already publicly available in some form – although these forms may be challenging to find for the general public.
The related argument is the differences within these texts are simply a matter of context. Many of these documents may not be understood appropriately because they are only one document in a series of documents. The context of these documents (especially documents like diplomatic cables) cannot be appropriately understood without a knowledge of the situation, the communication, and the interaction between the personalities involved. Given knowledge of this, some communications may still be inappropriate. However, some would argue these are matters of poor choice or judgement lapses, not significant errors of state.
The second, policy-level argument against WikiLeaks relates to the general disclosure of classified information. Government’s diplomatic cables, for example, operate under the knowledge that information is classified. Operating under this assumption, people can communication more directly about other situations and people. In these type of situations, directness and candor aid the efficacy of the work. However, if every communication is a matter of public record, or likely to be “leaked” the nature of communication changes. Anyone who has ever read a political party’s manifesto or organization’s public policy documents can appreciate documents designed for public consumption are designed in certain ways: the intended audience of a text influences it. Those against WikiLeaks’ policy of absolute (enforced) transparency suggest creating a culture where all written documents are subject to potential exposure limit the utility of many documents that are necessary to a state functioning.
This WikiLeaks debate has brought the accessibility of information, and its role in modern society to the forefront of public debate. This is a critical debate because information technology, data storage and connectivity have changed the nature of confidentiality. How much information do we want available about ourselves, our state, others and other states?
Finally, how much do we trust others to mediate the information we are given? Much of WikeLeaks publications are provided through media corporations. WikiLeaks is releasing information that was not intended to be released. But, the information is still mediated through others. The documents alone are interesting, but how much else do you – and others – want to know?
BBC Fildes, J. (2010) What is Wikileaks?
BBC Lang, O. (2010) Welcome to a new age of whistle-blowing
Guardian (2010) The US embassy cables