WikiLeaks – Modern day Robin Hood or Cyber Blackmailer?

7 Nov

Jaron Lanier is one interesting human being.   In 2005 Jaron Lanier was selected as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by readers of Prospect and Foreign Policy Magazines, he was the chief scientist of Advanced Network and Services, home of Engineering office of Internet 2, and served as the Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion initiative,   author of the highly acclaimed book  “you are not a gadget”,  He is a musician that has played with a variety of world class musicians and has one of the largest collections of rare (but actively played) instruments in the world.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  His Bio is one of intellectual pursuit and accomplishment.    One of Lanier’s recent pursuits is examining philosophical and ethical implications of the rapidly evolving landscape of the internet.  The long Bio introduction is presented to emphasize the point that one should pay attention when Jaron Lanier says he has deep concerns about Wikileaks, and in particular when he raises  concerns that “hackers use their newfound power arrogantly and non-constructively” which naturally leads to bad behavior and dangerous outcomes.  Lanier’s article referenced directly below, is a long discussion on this topic, his premise goes something like this; Hackers, by virtue of their tech savvy, have gained immense powers, that presumably are used to keep giant institutions and governments honest, however in the dark world of cyber space, where nerds reign supreme, it is difficult to see who is the David and who is Goliath.

And this is just the beginning.  Jaron Lanier’s fearlessly takes on WikiLeaks in his article “The hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks“.   Lanier, once in the hacker culture himself, assails WikiLeaks’ disregard for consequences that result from their subversive actions, the consequences that are often profound, intentional or not, are set in motion by their ‘leaks’ in the name of transparency.    However, if you are going to attack the fundamental beliefs of WikiLeaks, you must first understand that you are essentially attacking Julian Assange, the creator and leader of WikiLeaks, so we must first understand Assange.   Julian Paul Assange was the subject of a long article No Secrets, Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency by Raffi Khatchadourian

WikiLeaks (and Assange) which began its online campaign in mid-2006, Khatchadourian rightly describes as more of a media insurgency than an organization.   There is no WikiLeaks headquarters, no offices, no payroll, and no corporate officers.   Assange has a legion of loyal volunteers and benefactors that have worked together, mostly in secret in various locations around the world, to create an astonishing collection of previously secret material that is now online for the world to view.   Many items in the archive have achieved the desired notoriety:  Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo email; Cablegate – The US State Department’s cables to Afghanistan, Climate-gate emails from Universities in England, and many more.  Khatchadourian provides an insider’s glimpse of the secretive workings of Wikileaks by depicting a WikiLeaks campaign, led by Assange himself in an undisclosed location in Iceland.  The Wikileaks sensation being created here is a controversial video taken from the cockpit of an Apache Helicopter in Iraq, from the US military depicting US military killing at least 18 people.  Included in the 18 were two Reuter’s war journalists.  The killing of the journalists transformed a tragic military episode into a world-wide media event.  In spite of the world wide scrutiny the US Military was successful in keeping the video secret – until undisclosed sources leaked them to WikiLeaks.

What does Assange say he is trying to achieve by all this?  The article by Khatchadourian, which provides rich detail on Assange’s early life, provides an insight on how his unusual upbringing, part bohemian soup and equal part ‘The Fugitive’ was crucial in forging his radical world view.  Khatchadourian states “He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution”.    Assange views his creation of WikiLeaks as a way to wage battle against the secrecy and conspiracies that he perceives are rife in governments and big institutions and therefore must be brought down to protect the individual and the population in general.  The warfare is waged by creating a creating a platform for total transparency, a platform of ‘leaked’ or ‘pirated’ information that Assange would contend is not really pirated at all, as information does not belong to institutions, (that he feels are inherently illegitimate due to their secretive culture), but to the public.

So what are we to make of WikiLeaks?  Are they modern day Robin Hoods, with every bit of information accessible through the web as their personal Sherwood Forest? Are they a group of irrepressible and Irresponsible cyber-pranksters?  Or Cyber terrorists and blackmailers who have become as corrupt as the institutions they seek to bring down.   This is a complicated question that has many perspectives and has been the subject of numerous published opinions that could fill a small library.   Lanier brings a fresh perspective in his critique of WikiLeaks that has sparked quite a flurry of strongly worded counter opinions.   I believe the intensity of the response is largely due to his credentials as an internet savant and ethicist.  Therefore his objections have an inherent credibility, which brings with it the potential to influence serious minded internet futurists and policy makers potentially eroding WikiLeaks’ legitimacy.

Lanier’s principle objections are difficult to summarize in a ‘headline’ because he articulates a complex paradox that is the architecture of WikiLeaks and the Internet in general.  He first notes the fundamental hypocrisy of WikiLeaks and other organizations like Google or Facebook where technical experts can erect firewalls to protect what they know about you from digital snoopsters, yet claim the world will benefit when everyone else lets down their walls of privacy.  He also notes that hackers like Anonymous and WikiLeaks behave as badly as those they want to tear down, leaving their own collateral damage, (people killed or threatened, diplomatic efforts irreparably harmed, reputations ruined,) in the wake of their acts yet refuse responsibility even as Assange uses charged phrases like ‘collateral murder’ to describe the acts of the US Military.

Yet his most compelling argument is against the very architecture of the internet that WikiLeaks has exploited.  Most organizations, or governments, he explains, are either very open or very closed, and the very closed benefit more than the very open.  For simplicity sake, think of Russia’s approach to openness and internet freedom to that of the U.K.  Mostly open organizations and citizens are laid bare to expert cyber warfare and are then vulnerable to cyber extortion and harmful or ruinous exposure.  While closed networked societies are less exposed. Where is that sweet-spot in the middle Lanier ask, can’t there be a middle-ground architecture that would both foster and demand trust and responsibility?  Lanier reveals that Assange is essentially making the case we live in world where trust is impossible, given there can be no trust it follows there can be no secrets, this is “a perfect world for machines” Lanier points out but is this the world we want?   He acknowledges that the other path is more difficult, but one that is essential to pursue for human existence in a democracy. He states as follows:

“We sanction secretive spheres in order to have our civilian sphere. We furthermore structure democracy so that the secretive spheres are contained and accountable to the civilian sphere, though that’s not easy”

Lanier’s opinion demands serious attention as he exposes more than the conflicts inherent within WikiLeaks but a conflict that has arisen form the explosion of the organic growth of the internet and the social graph connecting organizations and all their data through a vast radically connected but not so well protected network.   The overall wellbeing of society has come to depend on a structure (the current internet) that is very complex, not well understood by most, and virtually unregulated.  Recently we have seen how ’cyber-nerds’ are capable of exploiting their technical advantage by now trying to impose their own system based on a confused and warped world view.   Lanier argues for an Internet structure that rejects this anarchy and better reflects humanities basics needs, such as the desire for democracy and privacy (with plenty of caveats and limitations) and the possibility of trust. I will close this with a quote I find compelling and in my opinion best summarizes Lanier’s lengthy dissertation. “Anarchy and dictatorship are entwined in eternal resonance. One never exists for long without turning to the other, and then back again. The only way out is structure, also known as democracy” I could not agree more.

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