[silk] World Cyberwar And the Inevitability of Radical Transparency
Udhay Shankar N
udhay at pobox.com
Tue Jul 12 06:14:58 PDT 2011
I see nothing "inevitable" about this (see John Walker's take  for an
opposing viewpoint), but I respect David's viewpoint, and obviously he's
devoted a few decades to thinking about this.
World Cyberwar And the Inevitability of Radical Transparency
How WikiLeaks ignited the first international cyber war and how
pro-business laws enacted to promote the growth of Silicon Valley's
digital media and technology
companies inadvertently nurtured transformation activists shaking up and
toppling governments around the world.
July 6, 2011 - by David Brin
ARE WE heading into an era when light will shine upon everyone, even the
mighty? Will the benefits of such an age outweigh the inevitable costs?
Recent events that powerfully illustrate these trade-offs range from the
WikiLeaks Affairbpublishing a quarter million documents purloined from
the United States governmentbto the tech-empowered Arab Spring that
followed to the battle being waged on our own streets between law
enforcement agencies and citizens who record their activities.
Perhaps I come to this topic pre-jaded. In The Transparent Society
(1997), I forecast that traditional notions of secrecy would crumble in
the early 21st century. For many reasonsbtechnical, social and
politicalb"leaks" would grow into tsunamis that carve a radically
different world. My 1989 novel Earth portrayed near-future events like
massive dumps of military and diplomatic secrets that rattle governments
powerless to keep up with amateur cunning and changing values.
Prescience aside, this sea change will drive outcomes far more complex
than outdated nostrums of left or right. Multiple trends seem to pull in
opposing directions. For example, ever since 9/11 and the Patriot Act,
many Americans have perceived us entering a nearly Orwellian era, in
which the state probes, pokes and scrutinizes us from every angle, and
allows corporationsbfrom banks to Google and Facebookbto do the same.
Dana Priest and William Arkin, in the Washington Post, fret that we've
become a "monitored nation" and world.
"(T)he United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence
apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local
police, state homeland security offices and military criminal
investigators. The system ... collects, stores and analyzes information
about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not
been accused of any wrongdoing."
Is China the future? American companies like Cisco are right now bidding
to take part in a project to span the city of Chongqing with 500,000
cameras in an integrated surveillance system. Find that both impressive
and chilling? Well, democratic Britain has an even larger camera
network. In the future, what separates free and unfree nations won't be
the presence of surveillance, but whether citizens are fully empowered
to look back.
Never before have so many people been empowered with practical tools of
transparency. Beyond access to instantly searchable information from
around the world, nearly all of us now carry in our pockets a device
that can take still photographs and video, then transmit the images
anywhere. Will the growing power of elites to peer down at
usbsurveillancebultimately be trumped by a rapidly augmenting ability of
citizens to look back at those in powerbor "sousveillance"?
This issue is being wrangled right now, on our streets. Far more ominous
than the WikiLeaks affair is a trend of police officers waging
unofficial war against camera-toting citizens, arresting bystanders for
digitally recording cops in action. Obsolete wire-tapping and privacy
laws are contorted to justify seizure and destruction of recordings made
even in public places.
We can sympathize with officers doing a harsh, underappreciated job,
resenting the addition of one more source of stressbrelentless scrutiny.
I appreciate not only the skill and professionalism that helped reduce
crime in the United States but also the daily fight for self-control
that each officer must wage, under conditions that might send any of us
into uncontrollable rage. We all carry hormonal and psychological
baggage from the Stone Age ... and from 5,000 years of urban life, when
the king's thugs never thought twice before pounding the heads of punks.
But times and rules change. We're more demanding now. In fact, most
officers are adapting well to our new standards, clenching their teeth
and calling "sir" even the most outrageously abusive drunks. I'm proud
to know some of these folks and I grasp their worry that some
street-corner putz might record a momentary, but career threatening lapse.
Yet, how can the assertion that cops deserve "privacy" stand up against
our far greater need for accountability? Shall we surrender the only
protection that citizens ever had against abusive powerbthe truth? We
won't allow it. More to the point, technology won't allow it. For, like
Moore's Law, the cameras get smaller, cheaper, more numerous and more
mobile every year.
When all of this equilibrates, juries, review boards and citizens will
make allowances for good people, caught making rare mistakes. We'll have
to, if we want our cities patrolled. Ironically, that broad perspective
will only evolve once we're convinced we really are seeing it all. That
our enhanced vision protects us.
If the odds seem to favor citizen-power at street level, others want to
apply principles of transparent accountabilitybor sousveillancebto
higher echelons of power
Clearly a panoply of transparency activists out there, including the
folks behind WikiLeaks, think it possible to restore balance in favor of
people, by applying copious amounts of light.
And, just as clearly, those in high places wince at being scrutinized.
(Human nature yet again.) For example, months ago, the U.S. Department
of Justice launched a criminal probe of WikiLeaks. Did Julian Assange
commit crimes by revealing those secret cables? Are the world's powers
shaken to their core, withholding vengeance only because Assange holds
"poison pill" revelations in reserve?
We've seen a maelstrom of indignant fury with all sides claiming the
moral high ground. Banks and credit companies that reject doing business
with WikiLeaks have been punished by leaderless networks of online
activistsbwho are in turn attacked by "patriotic hackers."
Meanwhile, similar cycles of sabotage or theft, followed by retaliation,
are seen when hackers from China or the former Soviet bloc invade
Western computer systems, compromising either intellectual property or
stores of personal identities, or destabilize systems like Facebook and
Google that empower citizen movements in other countries. Accusations
fly amid a growing cast of intermeshed characters.
Is this the full-tilt outbreak of cyber war, with nations and
corporations waging battle through deniable proxies? (Frederik Pohl
forecast such a dismal cycle in his prophetic novel The Cool War.) We
may yet miss the old days, when uniformed soldiers were accountable to
Refocusing back on the WikiLeaks Affair, with every news organization
re-publishing his info-spills, is Assange right to call himself a
frontline journalist? Because someone else actually snooped the
documents in question, and WikiLeaks merely passed them along, is
Assange protected by Western constitutional traditions and free speech?
David Brin THE MAN WITH THE POISON PILL: Are the world's powers shaken
to their core because WikiLeaks' Julian Assange is holding some bigger
revelations in reserve?
"Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your
bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on
the wing may report what you say."bEcclesiastes 10:20
An overall trend toward greater openness will be essential to our
survival as individuals, nations, and even as a species.
We have bet our lives, and our children's, on the continued success of a
civilization that provides our material needs better than any other. One
that has inarguably fostered greater levels of lawful peacebboth per
capita and for billions worldwidebthan any predecessor. It also
engendered both social mobility and repudiation of prejudice to a degree
thatbif woefully unfinishedbno prior society ever matched. Nor could any
combination of others equal our rate of discovery and new learning.
Even the way we are self-critical and unsatisfiedbangrily rejecting
braggart paragraphs like the one above and focusing instead on further
improvementsbeven that reflex is consistent with a civilization that has
real potential. One that would have stunned our ancestors.
Underlying all of this is the positive-sum notion that a competitive
society doesn't have to be strewn with ruined losers. In some kinds of
games, one player might win more than othersbe.g., getting richbbut the
outcome leaves everybody way ahead, even the "defeated." That may sound
absurdly sunny. Cheating abounds and capitalism always teeters toward
the old pit of feudalism. Still, enlightenment civilization's major
decision-making componentsb markets, democracy, science and
justicebreally have delivered positive-sum outcomes a lot of the time.
We are living proof.
Here's the key point: All four of those human problem-solving
arenasbmarkets, democracy, science and justicebflourish only in light,
when all parties get to see. When darkness prevails, they wither and die.
Specifically: Open markets depend on maximizing the number of knowing
buyers, sellers and competitors. (Adam Smith despised the secret
conniving of oligarchs and blamed thembnot socialistsbfor market
failures.) Democracy only functions well when vigorously engaged in by
knowing and curious citizens.
Our third and fourth pillarsbscience and justicebcannot function in
darkness at all. These four backbone components count on the same, core
innovationbreciprocal accountabilitybto foster creative competition and
to check our natural human penchant for cheating.
If 4,000 years of history demonstrate one thing, it is that you will
cheat, if there isn't plenty of light to stop you. Yes, I'm talking
about you. And me. The obvious conclusion? Anyone who demands extended
secrecy should face a burden of proof. (See Note 1 below)
Now, let's be clear. The Enlightenment is about pragmatism, and no
purist dogma is ever 100 percent right, even transparency. For example,
one topic calling for negotiated compromise is personal privacy. And few
claim that a military can function entirely in the open. Not yet, at
least. (See Note 2)
The WikiLeaks Case exposes several more areas where limits to
transparency are open to intense debate.
So here's the question: To what extent do governments have a need or
right to keep secrets from citizens? And who should decide when
government leaders have crossed the line?
My answer is default openness, with a steadily rising burden of proof
for institutional secrecyba pragmatic but unswerving movement toward a
world of accountability and light. Nevertheless, it is a burden of proof
that can be met! Not all secrecybeven government secrecybis
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prescribes a different answer: zero
tolerance. Immediate and radical transparency. Moreover, the decision to
reveal government secrets can be made ad hoc and peremptorily by an
individual. One who never voted for or againstbor paid taxes tobthe
government in question. (See Note 3)
David Brin THE WORLD IS WATCHING: The successful revolt in Tunisia was
fueled by a protest movement that knew about the power of hand-held
media, like cell phone cameras.
The Trend Forward
Of course, our Enlightenment experiment is about much more than
markets, science, democracy and justice. These institutions fail without
spirited citizen involvement. Laws against racism would be futile
without the inner changes of heart that millions have performed, in two
Deep underneath their bickering, republicans and democrats share a
mental reflexbSuspicion of Authority (SOA)bthat goes back generations,
differing mostly over which elite they see looming as a potential Big
Brother, even while making excuses for the elites they prefer. In a
sense we all want more transparency and light ... to shine on groups
that we dislike.
Do average citizens really matter? They may seem feeble compared to
influential elites: power brokers of government, wealth, celebrity,
criminality, corporations and academia. But this changes when
individuals band together in new-style nongovernmental organizations on
the front lines of the transparency fight.
Take Peter Gabriel's Project Witness. PW buys up last year's video
equipment, in cheap lots, then hands crateloads of cameras to activists,
in places where fighting for democracy can take prodigious courage,
spreading accountability at the local level where it affects lives, a
few hundred at a time. Drawing attention to ten thousand small
struggles, they show how a little added light can save or empower the
next Nelson Mandela. (See www.Witness.org for details.)
Some efforts that are rebelliously pro-freedom can't exactly be called
"pro-transparency." A decade ago, the fad among hackers was
encryptionbpromoting a quaint notion that the scales of justice can be
balanced in all directions, if everyone were somehow kept blind to each
Some Assange allies, like Jacob Appelbaum, distribute a system called
Tor that empowers dissidents living in oppressive states to communicate
with messages that are cleverly enciphered and rerouted. While the
cypherpunks' dream of crypto-empowered world paradise is impractical on
many levels, it has proved useful to whistle blowers.
What these and other endeavors share is a pragmatic approach to
spreading liberty and accountability. If all the world's people become
habitual defenders of freedom and accountability in the local realms
that affect them most, where individual action can be effective, then,
as Alexis de Toqueville showed two centuries ago, those habits will
propel us along the spectrum of progress, whatever happens on the
Olympian heights of pompous presidents and tycoons.
Indeed, steps toward new-era transparency are even taking place at the
highest levels. The Obama administration claims to have cut away at the
Everest-high pile of classified documents left by its predecessors and
to have tightened rules for who can declare something secret, and when.
Meanwhile, even in Switzerland, Alpine haven for elite confidentiality,
changes may be afoot. A Swiss-based banking consortium has proposed new
codes under which financiers' compensation packages should be more
transparent to investors. Are these steps toward transparency sincere?
Will they be enough, when people in developing nations demand a return
of lucre stolen by their ex-dictators?
Leak to History
We aren't the first generation in this struggle. Today's inventors of
freedom-friendly toolsbfrom anonymizers and re-routers that evade
censorship to sniffer-correlators that help average folk peer past elite
veilsbseem blithely ignorant of just how old and difficult the problem
These self-styled paladins of a new era should recall that our principal
weapon in defending freedom and hope predates the Internet by more than
200 years. It has roots in 18th-century pamphleteers, in the
constitutional deliberations of Philadelphia and (yes) even in the
old-fashioned nations that still make up the foundation of our
Enlightenment. A foundation that some of the folks at WikiLeaksbin their
righteous self-congratulationbtend to ignore, even though they count on
it for their very lives.
Indeed, what is the worldwide blog community, other than a vast
expansion of the sensor web that we all had, in our tribes and villages
of old, when gossip revealed even the peccadilloes of the chiefs?
Notable among the tattles spilled by WikiLeaks were Sarah Palin's hacked
email messages, a banned report on assassinations and torture enacted by
Kenyan police, the confidential membership list of a British neo-fascist
party and tens of thousands of classified documents related to the war
in Afghanistan. A year ago, the website stirred up an international
furor by publishing emails purportedly showing scientific collusion
among global-warming experts.
An aside. Was the last revelation an attempt to "spread the love" and
prove non-leftist evenhandedness? Or a manifestation of Assange's
eagerness to spill whatever would get him headlines? We may never know.
But carelessness in that casebfailing to investigate his source or
understand the contextbput in question Assange's long-standing claim to
be a "journalist." Indeed, one major drawback of splurge-type leak sites
is their susceptibility to be used as unwitting proxies in battles among
WikiLeaks' first major media breakthrough came in April 2010. At a press
conference in Washington, Assange unveiled a 2007 combat video from the
view of an American Apache helicopter in Iraq, repeatedly opening fire
on a group of people on the ground, including some in a van that
approached and began helping the wounded. The soldiers' giggling,
game-boy background commentary was deeply disturbing.
But the event that catapulted WikiLeaks into the forefront of
international attention, making Assange a 2010 finalist for Time
magazine's "Person of the Year," was the page-by-page release of more
than 250,000 State Department "cables" and other documents, allegedly
swiped by a U.S. Army private, giving the world an unprecedented view of
the chatter and candid views of American diplomats.
When WikiLeaks tweeted that "The coming months will see a new world,
where global history is redefined," we saw the extent of its preening
confidence and pro-transparency ambition. Nor were U.S. government
secrets to be anything more than an appetizer. Promised soon? Tens of
thousands of documents from a major U.S. banking firm, then material
from pharmaceutical corporations, finance and energy companies.
Again, the deep justification is undeniable. We'll soon face a rising
flood of technological breakthroughs that could either benefit us all or
else do jagged harm to humanity and the world. With hard decisions and
tipping points coming ever-faster, we'll do betterband possibly even
survivebif each crisis-choice is debated openly. (See Note 4)
Essential precursors for WikiLeaks go way back. But for legal guidance,
most observers have been zeroing in on the Pentagon Papers affair, when
Daniel Ellsberg released documents showing how the U.S. government lied
or manipulated perceptions during the Vietnam War. Assange is relying on
precedents from that era to stay free and in business.
Unlike Britain, whose Official Secrets Act gives the state power to
pre-censor journalists or penalize them for publishing forbidden
information, the United States Government (USG) has less legal standing
to go after leakers. Even the 1917 Espionage Act, passed in a xenophobic
rush during World War I, only decrees punishment for unauthorized
possession of national defense information if it is thereupon given to
"any person not entitled to receive it," and if the provider has reason
to believe it "could be used to the injury of the United States or to
the advantage of any foreign nation."
As interpreted by courts during the Pentagon Papers era, this law
leaves a pretty generous out for journalists who passively receive such
secrets and then publish them. The government bears an appropriately
steep burden of proof to show not only that there was substantial
"injury" or foreign "advantage," but that the journalist also had strong
reason to expect this.
Note that this is a separate matter from prosecuting the individual who
gathered and leaked the information, in the first place. Any person who
either invaded a USG database to access files or who violated a position
of trust in order to remove them, has broken a number of other laws, for
which penalties can be severe. In the current case, U.S. Army Private
Bradley Manning awaits court martial for swiping the State Department
and Pentagon files that made Assange an international figure. Although
somebe.g., Berkeley city councilmembersbhave called Manning a hero and a
martyr, few expect Manning to evade punishment.
Assange is another matter. The gaps that currently make it hard to
prosecute him include provisions under Section 230 of the 1996
Communications Decency Act that offer a safe harbor for online "middle
parties," protecting them from liability for passing along most kinds of
material they receive from an initial content provider.
In fact, current law cuts both ways. The same regulations also protect
those companies who have acted to cut off, or hem-in, WikiLeaks. As
Nancy Scola put it, on the Personal Democracy Forum:
"Section 230 is one of the fundamental reason why the United States is a
friendlier nation to the Internet and to building Internet businesses
than so many others are. But the flip side of 230 is that companies are
also given protections for taking down from their services content that
they find objectionable. And when it comes to Wikileaks, we're arguably
seeing companies that have been given so much freedom by Section 230
running and hiding behind its protections when the heat is on."
Initially, the Pentagon acknowledged that no person or vital national
interest appeared to have been harmed by WikiLeaks. This reassurance
came into question in December with a W-leaked list of overseas sites
potentially both vulnerable to terrorist attack and of critical
importance to the United States. This seems to undermine any claim that
the documents were vetted to reduce potential for harm.
Yet, this affair is rich in irony. For example, is it totally
coincidence that the recent Arab Spring movement spread across North
Africa and the Middle East just after WikiLeaks spilled all those State
Department cables? Confidential memos that revealed how deeply our
foreign service officers and diplomats despised the dictators they had
to deal with? One net effect was to mute any anti-American theme among
the young democracy activists. Geopolitically, this unintended result
may outweigh all the harm that Assange thought he was doing to the U.S.
We need to remember the big picture: that if doses of transparency are
sometimes discomfiting or inconvenient to the leaders and agencies of a
clumsy-but-well-meaning democracy, those same doses are often downright
lethal to our enemiesbelites of criminality or fanaticism or obstinate
Ultimately, if we are led by smart people, they should see that the
historical role of the United Statesband its best interestsbwill be
served by adapting quickly to a worldwide secular trend toward more
light. In fact, abetting this trend should be a central strategic goal
for America and its allies, since this trend leads to victory for our
type of civilization.
Geeks Strike Back
What about all that talk of "cyber-war"? The cyber-activist community
lined up en masse to defend Julian Assange. For example, Anonymous, a
leaderless group of activist hackers, has avowed credit for denial of
service attacks on Mastercard, in revenge for that company cutting off
payment flows to WikiLeaks. Attacks have also targeted PayPal, Amazon,
VISA and other companies. When Post-Finance, the Swiss national postal
bank, froze Assange's account because he falsely claimed local residency
on his deposit forms, this drew vigorous assaults by hacker activists,
or hacktivists. (Hypocrisy alert: When has such a lapse ever before
bothered Swiss bankers?)
"Corrutpt governments of the world," began a recent message on the
Anonymous group's YouTube site. "To move to censor content on the
Internet based on your own prejudice is, at best, laughably impossible,
at worst, morally reprehensible."
In a few short weeks, simply by appealing for volunteers, the Anonymous
group recruited more than 9,000 computer owners in the United States and
3,000 in Britain to download the software to incorporate their machines
into the network that attacks WikiLeaks' enemies.
Via a supportive online "tweet," Electronic Frontier Foundation
co-founder John Perry Barlow told the Anonymous hackers, "The first
serious info war is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You
are the troops." See
Resistance Is Feudal
In The Transparent Society, I profiled members of this loose
international community, whose mixture of brilliant skill, individualism
and light-weight transcendentalism seems to hark back at least to the
Freemasons, or perhaps the Jesuits, if there is any useful precedent at
Evidently, they are the purest products of a Western Enlightenment that
they alternately revere and spurn with dripping contempt. A force to be
collectively reckoned with, they also tend toward utter confidence in
their superior spycraft, as well as blithe assurance that history is on
However, there are drawbacks to the notion of cyberpunks as combatants.
Their proposed "army" combines all the worst traits of a militant
underground and a chaotic schoolyard. The Anonymous network, for
example, operates as a collective in which control devolves to whichever
members just happen to be signed in, at any particular moment.
At present, that model works, because the tasks are simplebto shuttle
some encrypted files around, to share and coordinate some hack-attack
programs among a few thousand volunteers ... or perhaps a few tens of
thousands of bystanders who have inadvertently let themselves be
hijacked in a botnet.
Fine, so far. But this model will break down when it is discovered that
the National Security Agencybthrough several hundred feigned
identitiesbcan sign in and simply vote itself control, whenever it so
Or take the pathetic case of Bradley Manning, the bored, low-level
nerd-in-uniform who let his daydreaming ennui get the best of him in
dusty Iraq. When Manning impulsively decided to copy those documents off
SIPRNet, he took all sorts of precautions to keep the theft from being
noticed and to encrypt the documents' transmission to WikiLeaks. Then he
bragged about it to a supposedly trustworthy hacker confidante, who
promptly sold him out.
There is an endearing air of naivete in all the bellicose "war" talk,
coming from hacker-nerds whose principal experience with combat is World
of Warcraft. Few have studied the history of revolutionary movements and
methods in detail, the ancient techniques used by rebels and secret
police in deadly cat-and-mouse games stretching back from the KGB and
Gestapo, through czarist Russia, Ching and Tang China, Babylon and
across 4,000 years of recorded history. Like bribery, blackmail,
co-opting, threats to loved-ones ... and quiet disappearance. Few of
these age-old methods will be inconvenienced by geeky methods like
If things truly were as dire as some hackers romantically claim, if our
civilization is already like those other despotisms and if these
would-be freedom fighters really are our last-best hopebthen one can
wish they would preen less and study-up history more. For all our sakes.
Ultimately though, even the WikiLeaks model is untenable. For all of the
hacker chic, such quasi-institutions are lead by a few identifiable
people. If the cyber-mythos is correct, it represents at-best an
intermediate phase on our path to a universally empowered, all-knowing
citizenry. A path better served by pragmatic, incrementalist reformers.
Take an endeavor loosely led by Peter Sunde, one of the founders of the
anti-copyright Pirate Bay website. Techie activists hope to construct an
alternative, decentralized, peer-to-peer (P2P) system that would
continue to use today's Internet infrastructure but bypass the internet
"phone book" maintained by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
As the only semblance of an Internet governing body, ICANN has one slim
authoritybover the 286 "dot" domains (.com, .net etc.), but even that
narrow power offends the anti-authority spirit of young netizen
anarchists like Sunde. (See Note 5)
If their plan works, according to Paul Marks of The New Scientist, "a
sort of shadow Internet could form, one in which legal action against
counterfeiters and copyright scofflaws would be nearly impossible."
Some other options are already simmering, and these seem even harder to
prevent, at least in a minimally free society. For example, if the
forces of net neutrality lose every coming regulatory and legislative
fight, leaving both the old web and "Internet 2" firmly in the grasp of
major corporate and state interests, this will only propel alternative,
peer-to-peer systems to abandon standard pipes and fiber, taking flight
to rooftop transceivers and nodes that are completely citizen-owned or
which use cell phone networks. And if every advanced nation bans such
P2P systems? Then they will flourish in the developing world, giving
those rising countries a competitive advantage.
These are a few samples of the innovations that loom on the horizon. In
them we see, distilled, a core difference between two kinds of
transparency activists: pragmatic techno-incrementalists and the
One hacktivist told me: "Governments and corporatists can plug every
hole, but new leaks will pop open. Information wants to be free, and
nothing will avail the federal mastodons and company sloths, or prevent
new hemorrhages till they bleed to death."
To net-mystics, that is more than just an assertion, to be tested by
unfolding events, but a catechism of faith, like in old-timey religions,
or the communist teleology that few of them have read.
We transparency pragmatists know better. History shows that light can
fail. It has failed, far more often than not. Ask Pericles. Ask the
Gracchi, the Florentines and the Weimar liberals. For light and openness
to cleanse this civilization and make it succeed, we'll need practical
innovations and negotiated compromises, sometimes taking one step
sideways, or even backward, for every three steps forward. It may be
polemically unsatisfying to purists, but the general, overall, forward
trend is worth fighting for. Even compromising for.
How were racism and sexism reduced and driven largely into ill-repute,
during our lifetimes? Partly through the self-reforming of millions of
individual hearts ... but also through new laws, passed by growing
citizen consensus, utilizing those enlightenment processes of science,
justice and democratic government. And to whatever extent humanity is
now finally heeding our duty as planetary managers, don't we owe a lot
to government-funded research and wave after wave of environmental laws?
More practically speaking, what chance will Project Witness, or
Transparency International, or citizen camera-wielders, or the Chinese
local democracy activists have, if the general background tone of
international morality and law ceases to be led by Western Enlightenment
In part, the libretto sung by Assange and his supporters seems more
libertarian than socialist ... or else perhaps its anti-government
rhetoric harkens back to quaint traditions of anarcho-socialism. Either
way, in their gleeful adoption of the wild and open Internet as a model
for a low governance utopia, aren't they forgetting where the Internet
came from? Or the full context of their struggle?
Consider: These fellows are heroes only if you assume that freedom for
individuals, accountability for the mighty, fair competition, steady
progress, social mobility, flattened power hierarchies and honest-open
discourse are all ultimately desirable things. I happen to agree.
Only remember, these traits were never highly rated in most human
societies, where obedience, ritual, type-purity and conformity were far
more highly valuedband where "innovation" was often a dirty word. In
other words, Assange, and the hacktivists and their supporters are only
heroes under the light cast by a narrow, individualist culture that
still has all the historicalbeven biologicalbodds stacked against it.
Any other society would have, by now, simply taken their heads and been
done with it.
Raised by that same culture, I want Assange and his supporters to keep
their heads! I want WikiLeaks ...or something better...or many better
things ...to stay in business. Because the over-reaction that some of
the hacktivists seem bent on provoking will do no good for the overall
The hope, expressed somewhat more aggressively by "Valkyrie Ice" in h+
Magazine, is that "It really doesn't matter whether Wikileaks is stopped
or not. It's just the opening salvo in the final war between
unaccountable elitism, and accountable equality, and there is only one
real possible outcome, though there may be many partial victories for
those who seek to remain unaccountable. It may take decades, but the
future will belong to Transparency."
I hope the optimists prove right. Nevertheless, look around the world
today. The Enlightenment is still hard beset by forces that would
undermine or ruin it, either from the outside or within. Forces bent on
restoring those olderband possibly more inherently humanbways of
Need for Nations
Here is where we pragmatist pushers-of-transparency differ from the
romantics. Across the last 300 years, flags and nations and governments
mattered. They have been clumsy, blunt instruments, but the nations that
livedbeven crudelybby Enlightenment codes propelled a great experiment
in human living that departed from the old ways. Furthermore, the
nations that express general fealty to rights and accountability and
justice and science are still "rebels" in a world where human nature
keeps conspiring to drag us down again, into feudalism.
We have to watch these public organs carefully. Our hired watchdogs can
all-too easily become wolves. If you tell me that you want to spread
transparency and accountability throughout all Western governments, I am
with you! You say you want to change the Constitution? Well, we'd all
love to see your plan.
More generally, at this critical juncture in history, with existential
threats looming on every horizonbalong with a glimmering promise that we
may instead become a wise and decent star-traveling speciesbthe matter
is more critical than ever. We cannot afford anymore the all-too-human
tendency for leaders to decide our fate in secret. Not even "for our own
Reciprocal Accountability remains our only real hope. And to whatever
extent that WikiLeaks has helped push health-inducing transparency
forward, I am guardedly grateful. While I find the whole event
over-rated and a bit yawn-worthy, more a stunt than a model for truly
sustainable openness, the effects ought to be salutary.
But I have a larger goal that I hope you'll share: To achieve lasting
victory for this new way of life. A way of life that may stymie, finally
and forever, the old feudal temptations that have always erupted to
quash freedom. A way of life that may take my sane, rich and happy
grandchildrenband the sane/rich/happy grandchildren of today's poorest
AIDS victim in Zimbabwebto the stars.
Clearly, in order to get there, we will need a wide range of new
toolsband some of the old ones, too. And that means Western governments
will remain key instruments for quite some time. If watched, if
fine-tuned and kept honest, they will continue to play a role as we
cross the danger gap, ultimately reaching a place that is good and just
and filled with light.
Portions of this article were excerpted from a book in-progress. David
Brin's bestselling novels, such as Earth and Kiln People, have been
translated into more than 20 languages. The Postman was loosely Kevin
Costnerized in 1998. The Transparent Society won the nonfiction Freedom
of Speech Award of the American Library Association. His next novel,
Existence, portrays the minefield of dangers ahead, and our potential to
#1 May I pause to lay down a couple of background fundamentals that
should be obvious to anyone? Basics that ought to inform all of our
arguments about transparency?
* The greatest human talent is self-delusion. (Often propped-up by
another, our penchant for self-righteousness.) Across recorded history,
delusional leaders were responsible for countless horrific errors of
statecraft, though it was common folk who suffered. Yet, ruling castes
always made it their top priority to limit criticism, the only thing
that might have corrected their mistakes. This dire contradiction
propelled much of the tragedy of the last 4,000 years.
* The one palliative that has ever been found to correct this human
fault has been Reciprocal Accountability (RA). This entirely new
invention of the Western Enlightenment is the key ingredient of
Democracy, Markets, Science and egalitarian Justice. We may not, as
individuals, be able to penetrate our own favorite delusions, but others
will gladly point them out for us! And we happily return the favor, by
pointing out our adversaries' mistakes. That is the simple basis of
RA... and it can only happen in a general atmosphere of freedom. (See
It can only happen where most of the people know most of what is going
on, most of the time.
It's easy to see why Reciprocal Accountability took so long to emerge.
(Though Pericles tried it, in Athens.) RA may help a society to thrive
economically, to gain social mobility, liberty, fairness and the rapid
advancement of knowledge. But it is also highly inconvenient to elites!
In fact, it acts to separate the good of society from the good of the
ruling caste. This will prove a critical distinction, as we dissect the
Reciprocal Accountability is the pragmatic reason for the First
Amendment, entirely independent of morality and sacred "rights." Another
way to put this is with an aphorism and acronym CITOKATE:
Criticism Is the Only Known Antidote to Error.
#2 This matter takes up several chapters of The Transparent Societyband
soon I'll comment on something closely related: the Great Big TSA Mess.
#3 This distinction is an important, if quirky one, in the light of
basic justiceba topic about which Assange lectures us, incessantly. A
democratically elected government can be viewed as the property of its
voting, taxpaying citizens. It is the right and responsibility of those
citizens to ensure that their government is suitably accountable and
just. But, given that they own the government, what right does an
outsider have to steal the property of that government and to diminish
the government's value as a useful tool of that owner-citizenry?
I do not have a pat answer to this quandary. Indeed, since Daniel
Ellsberg was a citizen-owner, having voted and paid taxes, was he
inherently more vested and rightful in diminishing the government's
current stature, in an investment in its future improvement? I point it
out because it reduces the issue to one of tort/harm. Assange argues
that the only "other" that he has harmed is the separate entity of the
But there is some level where the link between that institution and its
owners cannot be ignored. It is relevant. In abstract, those United
States citizens are the putative injured parties and Assange is
answerable to them. He bears some burden of proving that he has not done
them actionable harm.
#4 Indeed, perhaps unintentionally, the late author of thriller novels,
Michael Crichton, implicitly supported the argument for general
transparency in an ironic way. Examining all of his plots, one finds a
single common element that underlay every disastrous misapplication of
technology that he railed against. A prevailing fetish for secrecy that
insulated his villains from inspection, criticism, accountability or
reproach. The often ridiculous errors made by those villains would not
and could not have happened, if general transparency and light had
prevailed. An interesting illustration from the world of fiction.
#5 I wonder where Assange would stand, on this issue, if he had been
born an aristocrat.
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