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technology review March/April 2011
From the Editor
In this issue of Technology Review we describe and celebrate
the 50 most innovative companies in the world (p. 35). Nei-
ther described nor celebrated among the TR50 is WikiLeaks,
the Internet organization that publishes the secrets of gov-
ernments and businesses, because it is neither a company
dedicated to generating profits nor, perhaps, a fit subject for
celebration. But WikiLeaks is, for all that, the most interesting
Web startup around.
In “Transparency and Its Enemies” (p. 70) I have tried to
make sense of the organization and its guiding spirit, Julian
Assange. What WikiLeaks is, and whether it is good or bad for
civil society, has become disputed terrain; and what has been
written tends to reveal the authors’ feelings about authority
more than it illuminates the organization’s innovations. Yet
those innovations are real and disruptive and, like those of any
Web startup, can be imitated by other, perhaps more sustain-
able ventures with better modes of business.
In my review I define WikiLeaks and separate its technology
from Julian Assange’s goals, which are, he has written, “to induce
fear and paranoia in ... [the] leadership and planning cote-
rie” of “conspiracies”—by which he means the management of
modern states and corporations. I suggest that his creation may
not survive very long, because the state, with all its powers, will
resent any attempt by an avowed enemy to explode its mysteries.
I argue that the organization’s technology—the “secure drop box,”
which I call a “ ‘platform’ from which leaks cannot be traced and
cannot be censored”—once imagined cannot be forgotten, and
will be replicated by more conventional media organizations like
the New York Times and Al Jazeera, as well as by other, less radi-
cally activist organizations dedicated to leaking. One disgruntled
former WikiLeaks volunteer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has said
he will create a competing, less politically threatening platform
called OpenLeaks. Others are sprouting up.
Is all this a good thing? In writing my review, I evaded any
moral or political judgment, but the question preoccupied me.
Any answer will reflect the writer’s preferences. Personally, I
distrust transparency. I am by birth and education a member of
the establishment, and politically a Whig (that is, a sort of pro-
gressive conservative). I think the rights we enjoy are not natural
but derive ultimately from the laws of a properly constituted
state, and I am wary of attacks upon its institutions. I believe
that states and corporations, like individuals, enjoy some privacy
rights and that any human system requires secrecy for its effec-
tive management. Neither innovations, nor art, nor contracts,
nor representative government, nor marriages, nor many other
valuable things would exist without secrets.
More, I am confident that we know how secrets should be kept.
The computer scientist Jaron Lanier recently wrote an article
called “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks.”
There he insisted, “If the secret is of vital interest to other peo-
ple, then secrets can be kept by those who are sanctioned and
accountable to keep them within the bounds of a reasonably
functional democratic process.” I think that’s about right.
At the same time, of course I am conflicted. As a journalist, I
am committed professionally to truth-telling. Often that means
revealing the secrets of the powerful, who, understandably, resist
public embarrassment and would prosecute the publication of
leaks as treason or theft if they could. Therefore, I cling to the
formal protections that let me publish such secrets without risk.
Lanier’s reasonably functional democratic process requires for
its operations that I should be free to practice a kind of licensed
disrespect for the ordinary laws governing secrecy.
Justice Hugo Black, explaining the Supreme Court’s decision in
1971 to allow the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers
(which showed that the U.S . government had misled the Ameri-
can people about the origins, scope, and progress of the Vietnam
War), wrote, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively
expose deception in government.” It was true then, and it is truer
now. Secrets breed like weeds, and all over the world they have
grown to occlude everything that is done by those who govern
us or sell us things; technology has made it easier for states and
corporations to keep such secrets; and a corrective toward trans-
parency is long overdue. Thus, I welcome the use of secure drop
boxes by recognizable media organizations, or neutral organiza-
tions that wish to work with them.
Just as we balance equality and freedom, we must balance the
conflicting goods of secretiveness and transparency. I don’t like
Julian Assange’s goals and methods, but corrective reformers
are mostly unlikable weirdos.
But write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and
tell me what you think.
— Jason Pontin
Is WikiLeaks a Good Thing?
By itself, perhaps not. But as an innovator, maybe.
Mar11 EditorLetter.indd 12
2/8/11 2:28 PM
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