Transparency in a world without trust

Wikileaks is definitely a controversial organization, questionable for the legitimacy of its mission raising numerous concerns about the digital future of information on a broader spectrum. In a Utopian world, the idea of mutual contribution to the wealth of human knowledge without any restraints or filtering, would be a noble safeguarded privilege. The scenario though differs significantly when an individual or organization uses this uncensored power to threat, control or even destroy another entity. The debates between open and closed governance, regulation and deregulation, ownership and pluralism apply on this issue making it extremely complicated to approach.

Analyzing Wikileaks and the vision of its founder Julian Assange, two schools of thought prevail. One that praises the move as a step towards transparency and another that defines the act of releasing government cables to be digital terrorism. Both have an element of truth but none defines exactly the case. For years governments and media agencies were blamed to filter and censor the information disseminated to the public and as Raffi Khatchadourian narrates in his article “No Secrets,” Assange used the opportunity to restore this injustice by sharing undisclosed government files and images.  Despite open governance not being synonymous to absolute lack of secrecy, Assange and his team acted as if it was so neglecting to consider national security.

This case demonstrates a greater modern issue, since instead of moving to open society and free access to information, it seems we are heading towards information polarization. Notwithstanding the fact the Internet encouraged the participation of more players in the information arena, at the same time it has created incredible power for those who know how to use Internet best. Comparing the news agenda of traditional media conglomerates to the filter bubble introduced by the Internet corporation giants, the pattern is not hard to distinguish. Both select what is “best” to reach the audience, the first to ensure conformity and the second to enhance the user on line experience. Regardless of the objective, traditional and new media monopolies aim to profit and decide what information should be available. So did Wikileaks. Imitating the Wikipedia website look-and-feel however, could not fake crowd-sourcing. A group of hackers filtered what information must become publicly available ensuring it would not be taken down. This method is more dictating and forceful than what the participatory Internet ideal of free speech and access to information would ever approve.

Jaron Lanier in his article “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks” makes an interesting point claiming the Internet is not making life easier, and argues that extreme openness will lead to loss of trust because information tends to be what is mostly publicized and not what is true. I am hesitant to accept the first part of the statement taking into consideration the obvious utility of the Internet; but I acknowledge that benefits always come with disadvantages such as allowing room for the nerds, tech savvy individuals and entities as well as active users to lead and control the digital information content and flow.

On the other hand Rebecca MacKinnon in her book  “Consent of the Networked” suggests that lack of transparency will pose a threat to democracy and points the advantage of creating incentives to uncover unjust government activity across the world. If initiatives like provide for this purpose, then what is the role of Wikileaks and the like? Evidently there is a fine line between access to resources and absolute lack of privacy and secrecy. To achieve this balance it would be oxymoron to suggest regulation upon the Internet flow of information but absolute control absence may lead to fatal consequences in the future. By all means the “right” of governments to switch on and off the Internet at their will is condemned, but so is individual abuse of the Internet to serve the public good upon subjective discretion. Even though power without accountability is more threatening than the contrary on a government and individual level, the confusion continues.

Leaving aside digital politics, Internet companies themselves have not yet clearly defined what their position is about content shared on their platforms. Problems and questions rise from Internet users communicating information from their political beliefs, to promoting organized crime, to actually conducting war firing tweets followed by rockets like the November 2012 Israel-Gaza conflict. Posts by the Israeli Defense Force and Hammas were taken down and put back on line leaving unanswered questions about the legitimacy of on line activity based on the service providers’ terms of use. What is certain is that ownership, accountability and trust are three different principles that matter and it will be difficult to achieve optimal transparency without figuring out how those come into play.

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