Free speech or frank speech? A Wikileaks counterpoint

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s a piece by Anne Applebaum at Slate that deflates some of the more optimistic rhetoric around Wikileaks, Cablegate and all that:

This is certainly embarrassing for those who made the remarks. I am less sure whether their revelation gets us anywhere: On the contrary, it seems that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech. Yet more ammunition has been given to those who favor greater circumspection, greater political correctness, and greater hypocrisy.

Don’t expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows it could appear in tomorrow’s newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows it might show up on WikiLeaks? I doubt it. Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.

Hmmm. I see where that’s going – a forced return to state diplomacy of the old school – but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad direction. Secrets are inevitable; it’s the nigh-industrial scale of confidential information exchange that will suffer from diplomatic paranoia, rather than confidentiality itself, and I remain to be convinced that a world with less backroom dealing wouldn’t be a better one for everyone other than the backroom dealers.

However, Applebaum’s point about Wikileaks’ choices of targets is harder to pick holes in:

… the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

I get the feeling that Assange and company would happily leak stuff from totalitarian regimes*, but it’s probably harder to come by; the great advantage of being a dissenter in a democracy – however flawed a democracy it may be – is that you’re less likely to pay the ultimate cost for your dissent. Indeed, you could probably argue that leaking Western secrets may encourage dissenters in totalitarian regimes to leak in sympathy… but I’m not sure that would hold a lot of water.

Perhaps it’s just that totalitarian nation-states are better at keeping their secrets… or simply shrewd enough to not let hundreds of thousands of people have access to a “secret” electronic network of diplomatic communications. Whether pointing out the dangers and consequences of global-scale hubris also counts as “embarrassing the United States” is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

[ * At times like this I have to remind myself that Assange is as much a political animal as those he’s trying to unsettle. As a dissident of sorts myself, I want to believe what he says at face value… and that’s probably the best reason for me not to do so. Trust in nothing, beware of strangers bearing gifts, etc etc. ]

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