A little bit about information and society

Fighting for Which Future? When Google Met Wikileaks

In the summer of 2011, in the midst of the Cablegate affair (the leaking of some 250,000 diplomatic cable transmission between the US State Department and American embassies by WikiLeaks), at a time of far-reaching changes in the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, and while public demonstrations against existing social order swept various places in the world, a meeting was held between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his associates (Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas and previously a member of the State department’s policy planning staff; Lisa Shields, VP Communications & Marketing at Council on Foreign Relations; and Scott Malcomson, director of communication at International Crisis Group and previously advisor at the US State department).

The published transcript of their discussion provides a rare glimpse into a clash between conflicting worldviews, a clash which reflects various power and ideological struggles raging over the past twenty years with regard to technology’s role in our society, usually away from public view.

Assange-Schmidt

Derivative Work: Colin Green
Original Photos by: Cancillería del Ecuador, , Guillaume Paumier and Wikimedia
(Photos are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Four such interrelated struggles are particularly worthy of mention. First, what will control of cyberspace look like? Will it be well-organized and centrally controlled by states and corporations, or by the individual users and professional experts? The debate on whether the Internet needs to operate without state regulation has already been decided both normatively and practically. The naive belief expressed in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, that the web can exist independently, relying on self-regulation only, is no longer tenable. Cyberspace, just like any other human space, is used for both positive and negative activities. The power struggle over the regulation of cyberspace is still ongoing: will it be the crowds whose “collective wisdom” and direct connectivity self-regulate online conduct (relying on professional experts and civil society to establish standards governing the way we communicate with each other), or will control be left to various state or corporate power elites who regulate our behavior by virtue of their control of political and economic resources, including technological platforms? In recent years, we have witnessed a trend of growth in both state and self-regulation of the Internet. However, the question of balancing power foci remains to be seen.

Second, technology — the web in particular — is it neutral or political? Technocrats tend to argue that because technology is based on algorithms devoid of human interference, makes it possible to construct consistently neutral and non-discriminatory processes. However, by the very fact that it is designed by humans, every technology is inherently political, involving values and interests cast in the image of its developers, and subsequently shaped by its users.

The third struggle is over the number and identity of mediators. In the information age, the ability to control flows of information is a significant power element. Technological improvements have immensely increased the individual user’s ability both to produce and to disseminate data. Despite this ability, however, true control of information is in the hands of mediators. The huge amount of information produced every second, as well as the need to create, share and read content require the user to rely on mediators. These network gatekeepers help the users in all their activities in cyberspace, from filtering excess information through connectivity with others to producing new content. We rely on Google to find what we search, or on Facebook and Twitter to show us the posts uploaded by our friends. But Facebook does not show us all of our friends’ posts, only those it selects. This is a struggle for controlling the agenda of information conveyed and transferred from one person to another — the essence of power — another aspect of the politics of information if you will.

Finally, the fourth struggle rages over transparency. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founding fathers of the World Wide Web, open code developers, and multiple forces in civil society and business sectors all have been working on making information more open and publicly accessible. For some, information openness has become a means to an end. The boundaries of openness have become a critical issue in the struggle for shaping the image of cyberspace and society in general. What are the checks and balances involved? Is the revealing of sensitive information at a security cost justifiable solely based on the freedom of information principle? Does blowing the whistle on systematic surveillance and tracking of civilians and users justify any means? And if limits are drawn, who should determine the boundaries? Information can be open, but its flows will certainly not be equal.

These power struggles are waged between conflicting sides, but framing them in terms of good against evil, anarchist versus conformist, freedom fighter against the power hungry is simplistic and ignores the complexity of these debates. Google is presented as promoting a model of white, liberal and secular values, while WikiLeaks is presented as promoting various shades of gray. But in fact, the Wikileaks orthodox position against censorship, at all costs, is designed to allow it total control on the freedom of publication, how and as much as it wants. But will this allow other narratives they do not espouse to be freely expressed? It is reasonable to assume that they too, in their capacity as mediators, will become an alternative form of censorship.

The complexity of power struggles is revealed also when Assange and Schmidt talk about the reduced extent of mediation required in the “new world.” Assange talks about relying on the masses as a way of bypassing intermediators, while Schmidt makes do with believing in the empowering potential of technology as an explanation for the user’s growing power. Both ignore the fact that the degree of mediation has not decreased, but rather increased. Today, Google is the greatest platform mediator in human history — between its clouds, Android operating system, mapping service, search engine, YouTube, chat and telephony in Hangouts, photos on Picasa, or Waze. WikiLeaks, which wants to create “an improved model of journalism,” is also a mediator, whether reluctantly or not. In the diplomatic cables affair, it deliberately chose to release certain materials and exclude others from the public domain. Who can assure us it is an honest mediator? Nobody can answer that question — neither Assange nor Schmidt.

Despite their conflicting views on various issues, Julian Assange and Eric Schmidt share a blind adoration of technology and the belief that technological solutions will cure society of its ills and woes, of rampant inequality in different contexts and the brutal denial of various rights. Technology has an important role to play, but it is people who turn it into a space for economic growth or into a dangerous space.

[This is a translation of the Prologue for the Book: ‘When Google Met Wikileaks’ By Julian Assange in Hebrew. The article was also featured on Huffington Post]

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