Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Assange make Government Behave Better

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Assange's motives, as far as I know, are not anti-American, but anti-authority. He would argue, I believe, that he has no power other than to authenticate and publish documents that others send to him about people with power, and thus that he has no obligation to reveal anything about himself.

This is and should be the principle behind WikiLeaks and its successors—to publish information that officials would keep secret, not information about private lives. In a world where governments, corporations, and other institutions have so much information about us, it is only right that we should have more information about them and about the activities of people acting on their behalf.

If institutions are not fully accountable, it is useful to have an unaccountable countervailing institution to reveal their secrets. The WikiLeaks solicits documents from anyone and posts them with alerts to the establishment press, which operates as de facto gatekeeper to the masses. What we're getting is the details the personal comments, the texture of diplomats' lives and those of the people they watch, the horrible toll of war and its daily indignities, the hypocrisies and lies of those in power.

Will all this make us more cynical rather than more demanding? Will it make governments more opaque rather than more transparent? Are we headed for an era of more paranoia about secrets, including less sharing of useful information?

If the cure is to be worse than the disease, let's find a better cure: Let's make the proper distinction between what should be secret and what everyone knows. Let's foster more transparency about the institutions that have power over us so that a WikiLeaks is no longer necessary or justifiable.

So far, little damage has been done—and little positive change accomplished. The American reaction has been over the top. Why is it that the call for transparency seems to apply only to countries that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits, rather than to the one that she represents?

I recently talked with an establishment stalwart who told me how much more difficult these leaks will make it for the U.S. diplomatic corps to accomplish its putatively worthy goals. But is diplomatic convenience really so important? Perhaps it's useful for us all to understand how things actually work. In any case, the official reaction is overkill.

WikiLeaks is good for two reasons.

1. We need a balance between people and power. Information and specifically the Internet's power to spread it is our best defense against bad, unaccountable behavior.

2. We do want to trust our governments and institutions. The point of openness is to make those in power behave better and to make us trust them more. Rather than viewing them as enemies, we should know what they are up to and perhaps have a little more say in what they do.

Making that happen requires someone willing to face opprobrium, jail, and a life of surveillance. I wish Julian Assange were a better person, but better people are not rising to the challenge.

NY Center for Studies & Research

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