First, a confession. I’m really not sure what I think about WikiLeaks. Obviously openness is a good thing, but encouraging individuals to risk their jobs and livelihoods to leak information fairly indiscriminately makes me uneasy. I worry that those who see only good in these disclosures are missing the bigger picture; there really are good reasons at times to keep things out of the public arena. It’s always interesting that those who are so keen on unmitigated openness tend to feel very strongly about personal privacy, as if they can’t see that there’s a direct link. But I’m keeping an open mind.
I don’t think I’m alone in my confusion. At the start of the weekend, the Twitterati were attacking WikiLeaks and suggesting that if you wanted real openness, you’d have to go far to beat investigative journalist Heather Brooke. Then it became clear that Heather was working with the Guardian on preparing the WikiLeaks material. Even the Guardian is performing contortional trickery at times to justify its disclosures (not that I’m criticising them, its just interesting to see that they feel they have to justify what they’re doing).
What I do know, in my water, is that this is important. This is the latest in a series of leaks of large scale information from Governments around the world. We’re also seeing increasingly information being disclosed in bulk by Government through choice. All of this is pointing in the direction of a huge sea change in attitudes to how Government should be carried out. Whether it’s right or wrong is almost becoming academic in the tide of disclosures.
FOI Officers, records managers, IT professionals as well as politicians and journalists have to come to grips with this. What are our roles in confronting it? Do we try to stop it or control it (or make the case for it at least)? Should we reinvent ourselves now that we seemingly can’t stem the flow of information? Are we now about ensuring that there is context for the information that will inevitably be seen around the world? I have a lot of questions right now but not a lot of answers.
One thing is for sure, these are interesting times.
Just thought I’d post here links to some of the various blogposts about the WikiLeaks disclosures, some of which, David Allen Green and Adrian Henriques (in the BBC Magazine) express my views much better than I have here!
David Allen Green in his New Statesman blog
Adrian Henriques in the BBC Magazine pages
David Higgerson in his journalism blog
For an alternative view, see Heather Brooke in the Guardian
The Guardian’s “private is not the same as secret” contortions
And finally, Simon Jenkins in the Guardian – more contortions, but the last few paragraphs on whether it’s possible to keep electronic communications secure is interesting (and inspired my penultimate paragraph).
Wikileaks used to feel like a good idea to me, but now feels like a disaster. This is very different from a whistle-blowing leak, and certainly very different from FoI, or government bodies disclosing their own data. Where are the checks and balances, where is the care for the safety of individuals, where is the public interest test (will North Korea feel more threatened and hence open up to the South, or more threatened and hence go to war?)? I’m generally in favour of openness, but this feels like criminal stupidity!
I advocate transparency given I work with FOI so had mixed feelings about the recent events at Wikileaks.
I found Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s take on this to be pretty balanced:
“First, there is a difference between “the public interest” and “the public are interested”. Of course, we are all fascinated by these leaks and wish to learn all that has been revealed. But there are many areas where the public interest will suffer by either the publication or premature release of sensitive information. ”
Chris, Mark – thanks for your comments. Interesting that we’re all struggling over this. But yes, I think this is going too far. What I’m really not sure about at this stage is whether this will have long term implications for openness, or whether this will turn out to be a blip, with WikiLeaks shut down in a few months’ time. It does seem that the internet is changing things and I suspect that even if WikiLeaks goes there will be something else in its place. How organisations protect themselves against that or choose to mitigate the situation will be the story of the next few years I suspect.