WikiLeaks, Open Information and Effective Use: Exploring the Limits of Open Government

Posted on December 29, 2010


WikiLeaks is Open Information writ large.

…the Open Information Foundation (has the intention) to bring to the world of information, what Open Source had brought to the world of software. Namely, the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, without borders, without limits and without financial constraints. Hopefully, by breaking down the traditional, properitary (sic) barriers to gaining knowledge, everyone can grow.

It is a bit surprising that there has been relatively little and mostly rather defensive discussion on the fairly obvious connection between WikiLeaks and the various manifestations of the “open” movement and particularly “open information”, “open data” and “open government” and what it tells us about the opportunities, limitations and risks of “open” in a governmental context.

Open data is a philosophy and practice requiring that certain data be freely available to everyone, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

(see also a number of other “Open” movements and communities such as open source and open access”).

This of course, is quite similar and consistent with the rationale given by WikiLeaks for the making available of the US government diplomatic cables and other leaks as in “Help WikiLeaks Keep Governments Open”!

This isn’t to make any judgments concerning the appropriateness (legal or otherwise) of the WikiLeaks file but simply to suggest that if open data is a necessary element of “open government” then one would expect that open information might be an equally significant component as well. Thus WikiLeaks brings to the fore certain of the dilemmas, radical challenges and contradictions raised by but not resolved in the framework of the “open data/open government” movement.

Arguments for “open data” such as the democratization of opportunities for analysis and assessment, increased public capacity for participation in consultation and decision making processes and the role that multiple additional open data enabled contributors would make to governmental processes would apply equally with “open information” a la WikiLeaks. However, where Open Data has chosen to adopt a collaborative approach to its efforts—working with governments to find ways of “opening up” government data in ways which are presented as being mutually beneficial, WikiLeaks has taken a rather more radical and conflictual approach, forcibly opening information to broader public scrutiny against the wishes of its current owner, the US Government.

This seeming difference in strategy doesn’t however, seem to imply a difference in longer term objectives i.e. both Open Data and WikiLeaks seem to have as their longer term goal—Open Government—whatever precisely that may mean.

In this context then the recent interview (last 20 minutes) by Birgitta Jonsdottir of Iceland,  a former member of the WikiLeaks team and a current Member of the Icelandic Parliament and somewhat parallel ones by another defector from WikiLeaks (Daniel Schmitt/Domscheidt-Berg)  is of particular interest. Ms. Jonsdottir broke with WikiLeaks in October and explained her differences with the group by referring to the emergent tendency of WikiLeaks to be concerned with “MegaLeaks” (her term) and to have moved away from micro and community-based approaches to “leaks” and information access.

Her argument goes on to discuss this in ways familiar from a community informatics perspective – arguing that the shift from a community-based WikiLeaks approach to a MegaLeaks approach was one that shifted the process of “leaking” from that of making information available to those (at the grassroots) who could make the most effective use of the information as for example, in supporting their activist interventions on the ground, to simply providing access to leaked information to the media with little concern or responsibility for how or by whom the information might be used (my paraphrase).

In this argument, Jonsdottir mirrors those who argue that in the absence of linking the leaked information to specific campaigns or actions WikiLeaks would have little direct value but would more likely have the negative effect of making more difficult the longer term processes of access to information by advocacy and activist groups.

Jonsdottir’s argument is one that is very close to the community informatics position that “access” to the Internet, data or in this case information is of little long term value or significance if those to whom the access is being provided are not in a position to make effective use of that information.  Access to information (or data) is only of use if those to whom the information is being made accessible have the means to put that information into a meaningful context; have the means and capacity to analyze the information; or are in a position organizationally to translate access into uses which are meaningful and valuable to those to whom the access is newly being provided.

One gathers from the telephone interview with Jonsdottir that the initial conception of WikiLeaks was that initially the intention was to link their leaked information organically into various grassroots organizations, campaigns and activities.  Presumably in this model, the information being leaked would be directly linked to groups who could make more or less immediate “effective use” of that information as it became available as for example, in support of already on-going campaigns or critical actions of various kinds.

Thus, the underlying strategy would be that of an on-going iterative relationship between identified grassroots groups and actual (or more likely potential) information sources within the target organization.  The specific campaign would indicate either by its actions or more directly through personal linkages the need for certain information which would then be made available (or “leaked”).  An alternative but equally likely approach would be that the availability of certain leaked information would be made known in such a way as to signal to specific groups the opportunity for a campaign or action making use of the information to which the group now would have “leaked” access.

The obverse of this argument of course, is that information made available in this way is or particular value to those who are in a position to make direct and immediate use of it. This of course, is the argument being put forward by the US Government and particularly the military who are suggesting that the leaks are likely to be of immediate value to insurgents around the world who are in a position to respond more or less immediately to information concerning informers, security vulnerabilities and so on. This would suggest the basis of the dispute between Jonsdottir and Assange which is that the current WikiLeaks approach (Jonsdottir called it MegaLeaks) lacks nuance and the leaker lacks the means to influence the downstream use of the information. In this instance the leak becomes potentially dangerous not only to the institution from which the leak occurs but also to those innocently (or otherwise) linked to the leaked information and particularly may put at risk those who may be only innocent bystanders to the overall information being made available.

Assange evidently moved WikiLeaks away from the earlier approach as understood by Jonsdottir (and perhaps others) to a more journalistically oriented “open information” position.  In this latter approach the focus is not on the “use” of the information but simply on providing access to the information in the most transparent and spectacular way possible (as is evident by how WikiLeaks has behaved over the last several weeks). In this approach, the provider of the information has little or no interest or responsibility in the “use” that is made of the information to which access is being provided—the effect is not targeted but rather there is a (somewhat fuzzy even mystical or ideological) belief that somehow implicit in the very process of making data/information/government “open”, good things will result. And well they may; however, as many have suggested, the process of opening up the information through WikiLeaks may have resulted in a certain amount of unwanted but perhaps inevitable “collateral damage”—at least that is the argument that the US government is currently making.

The problem with the WikiLeaks approach to “openness” is that only those already positioned with appropriate resources and objectives are in fact likely to be able to take immediate advantage of the information as it is being made available, at least in the short term This argument is the argument being made by Ms. Jonsdottir in support of an approach to leaking/open information that comes from working from the ground up and linking directly with those who can best take advantage of information arguing that MegaLeaks has drowned out the much slower and more nuanced approach of developing both sources and users so that open/leaked information can be of most benefit as and when it comes available. (The risks inherent in the current approach are the basis for the argument that the US Government is making concerning the danger that WikiLeaks presents to its confidential sources).

To some degree Assange/WikiLeaks recognizes the potential danger from the approach that they have embarked upon and which Ms. Jonsdottir objected to.  Clearly they recognize and are concerned that the groups who might most immediately be able to make effective use of the information could be criminal or terrorist elements able to quickly contextualize the information into their short term activities (undertake retaliation against informers for example).  Reducing the risk of this happening is explicitly one of the goals for WikiLeaks in choosing to work so closely with existing newspapers in editing the cables for public release. However, by choosing this approach WikiLeaks has also chosen to have the information they are making available be presented in sensationalist rather than pragmatic terms.  There is nothing wrong with this but clearly this could not be the longer term strategy for an “open information” regime.

WikiLeaks demonstrates that the problems for the US Government arise not just from the “information” being made available (much of which is embarrassing, but not necessarily damaging tittle tattle); rather the real problems arise from the ways in which WikiLeaks are revealing the underlying US (and its allies) strategies/activities/norms of which the individual WikiLeaks are simply the revealing output. These underlying elements aren’t for the most part revealed explicitly but rather they are quite visible through a process of framing and contextualizing the individual pieces of information and analyses being presented.

This gives a very strong and potentially damaging (to the US interests) insight into the broader information context/strategic framework within which the individual pieces of leaked information are being placed i.e how the US government identifies, gathers, interpret, analyses and uses information as part of their on-going deliberation and policy development processes. (The leaks for example concerning Honduras on the face of it were simply reporting on contacts between the Embassy and individual Hondurans during the course of the coup—none of which appeared to be particularly damaging. However, what the individual leaks seen in context revealed was how the US was acting to at least implicitly support the Honduran coup in contradiction of its stated public policy on the matter.

What this dramatically demonstrates is the fundamental role of information context for information use particularly as a contributor to policy formulation in a government context and presents a boundary condition for “open information” (open government) both from the perspective of “open government/open data” advocates and from those within government who are supporting and facilitating these initiatives.  Thus “open information” in itself is insufficient and even extremely risky as a wild card, in the absence of the framing or contextualizing of this information.

Of course, governments intent on “open data/open information” have as a primary objective to control this framing or contextualizing process (better that they do it in advance of the information being made open than to have others, perhaps with critical political motivations doing this framing and contextualizing after the fact). On the side of the “open data/open information advocates, ensuring at least a shared responsibility in this framing/contextualizing process is a necessity for ensuring that their efforts aren’t simply a part of a governments political agenda, but do in fact contribute to the “free exchange of information”.

What this says (or at least should say) to Open Information/Open Access/Open Government advocates is that what they are likely to get will either be information which has already been sanitized of those elements revelatory of the real processes or in other cases the process of gaining access to “open information” will necessarily become a constitutive element of the deeper internal processes. Thus governments who move in this direction (and many at least at the more local levels appear to be sympathetic to this approach) must be prepared for this and willing to accept and respond to the consequences and not incidentally to ensure that those receiving access to the information are in a position to make effective and constructive use of it within a context being actively developed iteratively between both providers and recipients.

In this sense then WikiLeaks is a harbinger of what is to come and provides a set of lessons on how to respond both for those receiving access to this information and those who are intent on providing it.

Clearly to ensure that “open information” is not a series of “leaks” and ensuing scandals or becomes a form of information based cooptation and manipulation, those advocating for “open information” and those who are agreeable to providing it must provide a framing and contextualizing as effective use which goes much beyond anything provided by WikiLeaks in partnership with its press collaborators or beyond simply making various statistical runs or information files available to public users.