Dave Clemente

The acquisition and distribution by WikiLeaks of 251,287 United States Embassy diplomatic cables has sparked a storm of anger and embarrassment in Washington that has yet to subside.

For the past several years WikiLeaks has been leaking documents from a variety of governments and corporations, but the scale and international reach of the US cables surpasses anything previously released. What can this recent leak, and the response to it, tell us about the way the internet is reshaping our lives? Are there other examples that demonstrate how the WikiLeaks model might evolve, and what it means for the public and private sectors and for individuals.

The US is not alone in decrying leaks that it struggles to control. Governments around the world are straining to manage - much less to control - the power and dynamism of the internet, and the way in which it confers disproportionate power on small and seemingly insignificant actors. Often hailed for the social benefits and economic efficiencies that it brings, the internet also permits the aggressive dissemination of information-much to the chagrin of those who are used to being in control.

Regardless of how WikiLeaks' actions are judged, the very existence of the organisation is evidence of the democratising power of the internet. Once information is made publicly available online, from evidence of human rights abuses and corruption to classified data or celebrity gossip, it is nearly impossible to control, restrict or delete, regardless of the wishes of governments, corporations or individuals.

This process also happens with staggering speed, in what has been labelled 'internet time' (jokingly reputed to move three to five times faster than 'normal time'). This acceleration effect can be seen when rapid developments, such as financial transactions, news stories or malicious computer code, race around the globe in minutes, far outpacing the response time of any government and all but the most agile of corporations.

The Leak

This recent leak also reveals an environment that is evolving. Previous disclosures were distributed primarily though the WikiLeaks website, but this is rapidly changing. In order to access and leverage much-needed journalistic expertise and resources, WikiLeaks partnered with major print media outlets Der Spiegel, El País, Le Monde and The Guardian, which subsequently shared the cables with The New York Times. Distribution to news organisations in different legal jurisdictions helped to ensure that the material would both reach the light of day and have a wide readership.

For all the headlines and polarisation created by the cables, it is useful to remember that only a tiny percentage has so far been released in the public domain, and that there is much more to come. The content has so far been relatively sedate, and often merely confirms that US officials believe information that was already popular wisdom. This should not discount the power of the cables, however, especially for populations whose governments do not welcome a free press. The cables have clearly had an impact in Tunisia-where frank diplomatic accounts of widespread corruption and lavish official residences served to stoke the growing flames of revolutionary discontent.

The Reaction

The response to the leaking of the cables is as interesting as their content. There was a nearly rush in the US to condemn WikiLeaks, almost completely ignoring the participating media outlets. The leak was initially described by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an "attack on the international community" that placed diplomats, intelligence professionals and others around the world "at risk". US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took a slightly different view, saying that characterisations of the leak as a "meltdown" or "game-changer" are "significantly overwrought".

Stating both that the material in the cables is inconsequential and that the leaks may put lives in danger only presents a contradictory message. This was put more clearly in context by the contrast between Clinton's January 2010 speech championing internet freedom and government accountability, and the US government's attempts ten months later to pull all the levers of power in order to quash the leak of diplomatic cables. This exposed the Barack Obama administration's high degree of uncertainty and apprehension regarding the radical transparency provided by the internet. In the wake of unrest across the Middle East, Clinton gave a more modest and nuanced speech on the power of the internet in February 2011, emphasising the human element of protest above the technological element.

But the adverse reaction to the leaks can also be viewed through the lens of information control. Washington would prefer to decide what is leaked and what remains hidden, as evidenced when recently retired senior officials reveal closely held information in their memoirs, or when serving officials anonymously provide highly classified secrets to a hungry media. Though current actions to prevent future leaks may bring short-term political benefits, in the long run the internal contradictions and rapid changes of position will only provide ammunition for those who wish to question Washington's commitment to the free flow of information.

Past Repeated?

The heated rhetoric about closing WikiLeaks and prosecuting its leader Julian Assange may seem tactically smart, but from a strategic perspective the overwhelming focus on one website and one person can appear misguided. WikiLeaks will either survive or it will crumble under the weight of current difficulties-but this may not matter. The organisation has served as a very public 'proof of concept' for all who wish to follow in their footsteps.

Current US pressure on WikiLeaks could also be viewed as a method of discouraging future leaks. There is some acknowledgement that WikiLeaks will be hard if not impossible to prosecute, but Washington can send a warning to potential 'leakers', within government and around the world, that there will be a steep price to pay for similar actions.

Yet the process of evolution is already well underway in the 'leak' community. New upstarts are waiting in the wings. They will have observed the difficulties and learned the lessons of WikiLeaks, and are likely to infuse their own organisations with increased resilience when faced with similar pressures. They will be agile and technically sophisticated, and even more impervious to political, legal or financial pressure points.

A variety of new websites are in the process of being developed. Some are targeted at specific audiences - such as Brussels Leaks, Balkan Leaks and Indoleaks. Others follow a broader approach, such as the most visible and viable new entrant - OpenLeaks. Even media outlets are entering the fray directly, as evidenced in late January 2011 when al Jazeera leaked nearly 1,700 confidential documents covering the past decade, which described internal peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

The example of the popular US music-sharing website Napster is instructive, and observers in both the private and public sector would do well to view it as a cautionary tale of unintended consequences. Napster operated from 1999-2001, freely sharing millions of copyrighted songs. At the height of its popularity it had over 26 million users, many of them US university students. As legal challenges from the music industry began to mount, Napster was shut down and ultimately reopened as a (much less popular) pay service. But as this took place, a host of alternative music-sharing sites sprang up to fill the vacuum left by Napster. Many of these sites were beyond the control of any single legal jurisdiction, confounding and ultimately reshaping a music industry that was swiftly losing the monopolistic control it had enjoyed for years.

The ability for small actors (even individuals) anonymously and with impunity to place material online for the whole world to view is a concept that unnerves governments and industry alike. But forcefully attempting to shut down WikiLeaks is likely to produce a dozen spin-offs, similar to the attempt to shut down Napster. Media giants succeeded ultimately in closing off one source of free music, but it was a Pyrrhic victory that irreversibly reshaped the industry.

This leak also demonstrates the tension inherent in sharing widely large amounts of information. There is a trade-off between increased efficiency on one hand (through 'connecting the dots' of potential terrorist activity) and increased vulnerability on the other (through 'leaks'), particularly when a database such as the cables is made available to a large portion of the US military. The real harm from this latest incident is not to government officials but to the American public at large. They are the ones that will suffer from the long-term effects of this leak, as foreign governments (or opposition figures within those countries) become reluctant to share information with US diplomats.

Will governments and industry adjust their 'business model' and adapt to changing circumstances? There is a delicate balance between information-sharing and restrictive 'need to know'; between 'connecting the dots' and stove piped departments. The internet is a complex adaptive system that defies unitary control. The cycle of evolution is continuing, and though it might appear dramatic now, the recent WikiLeaks episode is just one more step down a long path.

These issues do not just pertain to governments and industry; they pose questions for individuals as well. When considering how to protect and safeguard valuable data, everyone may be faced with the conundrum presented by risk management specialist Dan Geer:

'Freedom, Security, Convenience: Choose Two'.


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The End of History and the Last Man

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Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

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At War with the Weather: Managing Large-Scale Risks in a New Era of Catastrophes

Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century

Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

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World - WikiLeaks: Unsteady Drip