Tim Berners-Lee on Wikileaks and competing democratic values

Tim Berners-Lee, the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and inventor of the World Wide Web, drew a distinction between Wikileaks and efforts to increase government transparency through open data, which he is involved with in the UK. Alexander Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, has a good summary of his comments on the Huffington Post.

Berners-Lee succinctly discussed just a few of the values in a democratic society that have come into conflict in the Wikileaks case.

The whistleblower idea is very important to democracy, for the overturning of repressive regimes. The idea that the press should be able to not reveal their sources, for example, is a very important principle, and the fact that people should be accountable for what they say, and that you can’t just go out there anonymously insulting people, libeling them, creating havoc, which then spreads uncontrolled [?] damage across the blogosphere without any kind of accountability. That’s an important principle too. Obviously these principles are in conflict. And we, as a society, have to work out rules which allow us to have norms on both sides of the line, which allow both principles to survive, and where they are in total conflict, have a way of resolving in each case. That’s my feeling I’ve been asked that question a few times.

I think there are several democratic values at conflict in this case, and as democratic societies, we’re going to have to discuss these issues. The Wikileaks case has brought to public attention issues that specialists in internet security, government transparency and internet governance have been discussing for years. It’s good that Wikileaks has brought these issues forward to the general public. I hope that after some of the dust settles from the particulars of Wikileaks that these thorny debates move forward.

After Wikileaks, how do we empower those in government who support transparency?

Suw and I have watched with some concern as the battle over Wikileaks has played out. For a time, both supporters and critics seemed to lose perspective about what is a very complicated and nuanced story. Hyperbole and complete lack of context in the coverage were sadly all too common. As someone who has covered technology and security issues for some time, the lack of a sense of history about the story is shocking.

History is important. Many of the debates that Wikileaks has brought to the attention of the broader public have been going on for much of the past 15 years. Debates about internet governance, Internet security, resiliency and censorship didn’t start with the recent release of documents and war logs by Wikileaks. To see these difficult issues trivialised and bled of nuance in the shouting match going on between pro- and anti-Wikileaks commenters is deeply troubling because making grey things black and white tends to lead to bad public policy.

Let me add some history from my own work. I covered the story of the release of secret files by former MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson. I worked with my colleague Paul Reynolds and tracked the documents allegedly containing the identities of MI6 agents as they quickly moved across the internet after their initial release.

I’ll quote my former colleague Chris Nuttall from this 1999 piece:

Former MI6 intelligence officer, Richard Tomlinson, who has threatened to publish state secrets on the World Wide Web, says the Internet spells the end for the world’s intelligence services.

His prediction came in an e-mail interview with BBC News Online. “I think the Net will eventually make intelligence agencies defunct as there will be a lot less secrets around the world that they can steal,” he said.

The British government tried to shut down the website where the names were published saying that it was putting the lives of its agents at risk. Even if they had, it was too late. Mirrors of the information were set up almost immediately, much faster in fact than in the Wikileaks case. Indeed, this case raised many of the same issues that Wikileaks has.

The issue of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks being used for political means isn’t all that new. I mean, come on, Twitter was supposedly the target of a politicaly motivated DDoS attack last year. Hacktivism isn’t new. I wrote about waves of site defacements and other attacks stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict and after the collision of a US spy plane and Chinese fighter in 2001. Is it a danger of the 24-hours news cycle that history is wiped clean in every morning news meeting? Seriously, we will have no chance of tackling the issues our societies face if in the pursuit of the new-ness of news we immediately forget our past. Wikileaks is a pretty logical extension of events over the history of the internet and as a reaction to reflexive secrecy by governments around the world.

The history of US government transparency reformers

Without going over territory that has been well covered, it’s safe to say that Suw and I defend our right to remain conflicted about Wikileaks. (Suw says that she had wanted to write a blog post then, but shied away because of the abuse she saw meted out to anyone who expressed doubts about Wikileaks.) Fortunately, beginning a couple of weeks ago, leveler heads started to prevail and sort through some of the thorny issues and the competing values the case has raised. It is our hope that Wikileaks will lead to a mature discussion about government transparency. Clay Shirky makes a lot of very valid points when he says that competing democratic values are in butting up against each other with this case. As he says, in the short haul, Wikileaks probably operates as a needed corrective to government secrecy. However:

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to.

I followed the Personal Democracy Forum’s event looking at Wikileaks from afar, and this comment from journalist and internet activist Rebecca McKinnon points to the long haul:

We need to think strategically about how to empower those in government who support transparency.

One of things lost in the ahistorical coverage of Wikileaks has been the recognition of those who have dedicated their lives to increasing transparency and decreasing the secrecy of the US government. The standout exception to this has been National Public Radio’s excellent programme, On the Media, produced by WNYC in New York. They have covered the complexities of Wikileaks with great nuance and intelligence, interviewing people with a range of views on the subject.

For instance, they have interviewed Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a source I often called on when I was based in Washington. He has worked for years (joining FAS in 1989) to declassify information from the US government:

“In 1997, Mr. Aftergood was the plaintiff in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency which led to the declassification and publication of the total intelligence budget ($26.6 billion in 1997) for the first time in fifty years. In 2006, he won a FOIA lawsuit against the National Reconnaissance Office for release of unclassified budget records.”

He laid out his conflicted views about Wikileaks in a blog post and in an interview with On the Media. He said:

I would also say that in the U.S., the political process is still flexible enough that it is possible to put forward an argument for a change in policy and to see that change put into practice. We’ve seen more than a billion pages of historically valuable records declassified since 1995.

He has come in for a lot of criticism for being conflicted and critical of some aspects of Wikileaks work by those who truck no criticism of the organisation.

I also commend this recent interview with Tom Devine and the Government Accountability Project, who has been working for 31 years for legislation to protect corporate and government whistleblowers in the US. He talks about a number of cases where people have put their careers on the line to uncover waste, fraud and abuse. At the end of the interview, he thanks the interviewer for being interested.

To me, this is what Rebecca means when she says we, journalists and citizens in general, should strategically work to empower those in government working for greater transparency and also those organisations in our societies working for greater transparency. These battles for reform aren’t nearly as sexy as the Wikileaks story, but they are crucial in the long haul to our democratic societies.

Wikileaks crossfire: Cyber-attacks from supporters and opponents

If the internet weather is bad right now where you’re at, it’s most likely down to the amount of online attacks being carried out by supporters and opponents of Wikileaks. It’s a fascinating aspect to the story, and one that is starting to get some good coverage. I’ve collected some stories that delve into Anonymous, a loose online collective, that has launched attacks against commercial companies that have denied Wikileaks services, and also The Jester, a hacktivist who has launched denial of service attacks against Wikileaks.

The value of data for readers and the newsroom

When I was at the BBC, a very smart producer, Gill Parker, approached me about pulling together a massive amount of data and information she was collecting with Frank Gardner trying to unravel the events that lead to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. Not only had Gill worked on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight and on ABC’s Nightline in the US, she also had worked in the technology industry. They were interviewing law enforcement and security sources all around the world and collecting masses of information which they all had in Microsoft Word files. She knew that they needed something else to help them connect the dots, and speaking with me in Washington where I was working as BBCNews.com’s Washington correspondent at the time, she asked if help her get some database help.

I thought it was a great idea. My view was that by helping her organise all of the information that they were collecting, the News website could use the resulting database to develop info-graphics and other interactives that would help our audience better understand the complex story. We could help show relationships between all of the main actors in al Qaeda as well as walk people through an interactive timeline of events. I had a vision of displaying the information on a globe. People could move through time and see various events with key actors in the story. This was a bit beyond the technology of the time. Google Earth was still a few years away, and it would have required significant development for some of the visualisations. However, on a story like this, I thought we could justify the effort, and frankly, we didn’t need to go that far. Bottom line: Organising the data would have huge benefits for BBC journalists and also for our audiences.

?Unfortunately, it was the beginning of several years of cuts at the BBC, and the News website was coming under pressure. It was beyond the scope of what I had time to do or could do in my position, and we didn’t have database developers at the website who could be spared, I was told.

A few years later as Google Earth developed, Declan Butler at Nature used data of the spread of the H5N1virus globally to achieve something like the vision I had in terms of showing events over time and distance.

It is great to see my friend and former Guardian colleague Simon Rogers move forward with this thinking of data as a resource both internally to help journalists and also externally to help explain a complex story in his work on the Wikileaks War Logs story. Simon wrote about it on the Guardian Datablog:

we needed to make the data easier to use for our team of investigative reporters: David Leigh, Nick Davies, Declan Walsh, Simon Tisdall, Richard Norton-Taylor. We also wanted to make it simpler to access key information for you, out there in the real world – as clear and open as we could make it.

As the digital research editor at The Guardian, data was key to many of my ideas (before I left this March to pursue my own projects). I even thought that data could become a source of revenue for The Guardian. Data and analysis is something that people are willing to pay for. Ben Ayers, the Head of social media and community at ITV.com, (speaking for himself not ITV) said to me on Twitter:

Brilliant. I’d pay for that stuff. Surely the kind of value that could be, er, charged for. Just sayin’ … just an example of where, if people expect great interpretation of data as part of the package, the Guardian could charge subs

As I replied to Ben, I wouldn’t advocate charging for data for the War Logs, but I would suggest that charging for data about media, business and sports. That could become an important source of income to help subsidise the cost of investigations like the War Logs. Data wrangling can be time intensive. I know from my experience in developing the media job cuts series that I wrote at the end of 2009 for The Guardian. However, the data can be a great resource for journalists writing stories as well as developing interactive graphics like the media job cuts map or the IED attack map for the War Logs story. Data drives traffic, as the Texas Tribune in the US has found, and I believe that certain datasets could be developed into new commercial products for news organisations.