In October 2008 I attended the International Anti-Corruption Conference. On a bus from the hotel to a reception, I sat next to someone named Julian Assange. At the time, I did not know who he was. He told me he worked for a group called Wikileaks, which was not a wiki but rather a website where anyone can submit (either electronically or by regular mail) otherwise unpublishable information for publication. Unlike a wiki, the information is verified. In fact, it is passed through a series of servers in a series of countries to make it legally unassailable. Wikileaks has been responsible for publicizing everything from Sarah Palin’s emails to hard evidence of government corruption in Kenya, all obtained through anonymous sources.
Julian, whose picture appears in a recent Economist article, spent the bus ride and longer more or less arguing that he and his colleagues were the sole people at the conference who were doing anything serious about corruption. The only way to expose corruption, he said, is to make information public that proves it. Anyone sniffing around the edges was doing no more than that. There was no need to worry that the “wrong” information might be revealed, causing unintended consequences or unnecessarily damaging a reputation. Wikileaks takes care of that, he said, by vetting all submissions. And isn’t it better that the information is out there to be used than buried by a select and self-interested few?
I argued in vain that all of us at the conference were contributing our bit to fighting corruption, that a range of different anti-corruption methods were required. I was also shot down when I called him a cynic. Despite our somber topic, most of the conference attendees were generally optimistic that their work was changing the world. Julian was dark, portraying general evil at every turn. He may have been optimistic, but only about counteracting the relentless wicked nature of human beings.
In contrast to the Economist, Julian would not admit that he had founded the company. He vaguely indicated that there were several people involved and no one was directly responsible, just as their information was distributed in such a way as to make no single country’s laws applicable. The countries with the most generous laws on freedom of information, protection of sources, admissibility of wiretap evidence, etc. are each given a piece of the pie.
On 17 June Iceland passed a reform to its media laws after consultation with Wikileaks. The reform, whose protection for sources and journalists who might face foreign libel suits is considered the strongest in the world, was designed in collaboration with Wikileaks. The addition of this law to the world’s mix of legal frameworks will allow initiatives like Wikileaks to further flourish in this globalized media environment. But in the United States, land of checks and balances, Wikileaks’ “multi-jurisdictional” model smacks of a lack of accountability and the trap of the “benign” dictator. May they continue to have only the best interests of the world in mind and not make any missteps along the way.