A little bit about information and society

Wikileaks: An avalanche of leaking information

By on November 28, 2010 in Announcements, Free Expression with 0 Comments

This week something happened. Countries were waiting impatiently for the publication of 250,000 classified cables which leaked/stolen by Wikileaks. The reason – these documents contain juicy content about how the U.S refers to other states and leaders in the world. The tension rose even more few hours before the publication was due, and the site of Wikileaks could not be accessed. According to Wikileaks, this happened due to a mass distributed denial of service attack, but there is no evidence for that. If indeed someone in the US administration thought that blocking access to the website of Wikileaks will help the situation or stop the information from leaking, then  whoever thought that does not understand the essence of information flow and distribution in the Internet. Bringing a website down, not only does not stop the distribution of information, it even encourages users to seek the information in mirror and other sites, replicate it and continue to distribute it.

Additionally, Wikileaks knows the rules of the game with journalists. These hundred thousands classified cables were transferred already a week ago to big news organizations like Der Spiegel in Germany and the Guardian in the U.K.. Der Spigel did not restrain itself and “mistakenly” sold early copies of the German magazine at a newsstand. At the age of the Internet, this opportunity is enough to allow leaking some of the leaks prematurely. However, the real avalanche of the leaking information started with The Guardian, which enabled users without high-level digital skills to slice the data. The Guardian customized maps application (by using Google Fusion tables), which enables investigating and analyzing the classified cables per date and country. The newspaper also allowed the users to download either all the original information or the information with metadata (tags that allow to understand easily the data) that the newspaper itself added. This indicates that the newspaper worked hard for some time in order to make this information more clear and relevant to users.

With such large and comprehensive amounts of data, journalists understand that it is not enough to summarize main events to readers, as they used to do in the past. Actually, they cannot summarize so much data, even if they wanted. Instead, they turn the data accessible and transform the readers from passive to active users that slice data, and share the information with others according to their relevant context. This is exactly the process that turns information from anonymous to viral and known to many.

This affair demonstrates that the Internet has a real ability to shutter the scope of state censorship while strengthening freedom of speech. How does that impact the traditional rules of the games and the conventional checks and balances regarding freedom of speech?  The article, “Freedom of Expression and Imaginary Freedom on the Internet: the Abolishment and Rebirth of Censorship”, examines this topic in-depth and argues that the well-known traditional model of state censorship – that is, state censorship performed by regulatory agents – lost much of its importance because of the Internet. At the same time, the Internet is not free from censorship. Alternative systems of self-regulation regarding freedom of expression appeared. For example, the New-York Times published a selection from the leaking cables while self-censoring some information that they thought is sensitive. While self-censoring appears usually to be very effective, this action of the New-York Times may be regarded as absurd, since every user can download the intact data from so many alternative sites. The deletion of the data by the New York times may act as a boomerang, since the deletions may attract the attention of users to what was deleted and therefore to what is considered “sensitive”. In other words, the deletions may help users to find the information that is sensitive.

The Wikileaks affair has powerful implication to the relationships between states and citizens, and among states. I assume that the new continuous deterrence of uncovering internal communication will cause bureaucrats to be more careful in the way they express themselves internally and externally. It will also cause countries to be more accountable to the expressions and actions of their officials. Countries must internalize the change – the world is becoming more transparent.

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