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Interview: WikiLeaks, The Future Of Journalism, And 'The Internet As A New Government'

Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website

Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website

Jeff Jarvis was the creator and founding editor of the pop-culture magazine "Entertainment Weekly" and is now a professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, where he directs its New Media program.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Christopher Schwartz, Jarvis talks about the controversy over WikiLeaks, a website that recently published a trove of some 90,000 sensitive U.S. documents about the war in Afghanistan. U.S. officials and others were concerned that the leaks constitute a national security threat. Jarvis talks about WikiLeaks' significance for journalism and the future of the Internet.

RFE/RL: What does an entity like WikiLeaks ultimately mean for journalists?

Jeff Jarvis:
The WikiLeaks story is interesting because we see big media not sure what to do with them. "The New York Times," "The Guardian," and "Der Spiegel" cooperated with WikiLeaks and became their distributor. On the other hand, WikiLeaks opened up more than the newspapers would have, and that's where the controversy comes from...

I think what we find here is that in the new age you don't need a journalist to get information. The Internet makes it possible to gather and share information at a zero marginal cost. We as journalists have to ask where we add value to that process...

In the case of the WIkiLeaks war logs story, the journalists did add value. They distributed the information, they brought it attention, they gave it perspective and context, and, at least in the publications [i.e., the newspapers], they edited out the things that they believed were dangerous.

Jeff Jarvis
RFE/RL: What does WikiLeaks mean for the future of government secrecy?

In WikiLeaks, what we really see is the move to more radical transparency. The only solution to leaks is transparency, and the problem with holding too much secret is that you not only become more vulnerable to leaks, but we don't trust you to decide what should be secret...

I'm all in favor for transparency in government. The problem becomes when we make everything on the record -- every e-mail, for example -- then we may be motivating government officials to not put things in writing in e-mail and instead pick up the phone, which so far is not recorded. And so I think we have to be somewhat careful about how we structure transparency in government so people can get their work done and aren't constantly feeling as if they're under the spotlight...

We also have to change our relationship to government. Now it's a lot about "gotcha" moments -- you know, "catch the bastards." Well, you know, there are bastards to catch, but I think we have to make our relationship of citizens to government more collaborative, more constructive. When that happens, there's more benefit in releasing information. Right now, the cat-and-mouse game is to get information released so we can prove a wrongdoing by government, and that only makes government more secretive.

RFE/RL: What alternative model would you propose to counter the current cat-and-mouse game?

I think what we have to head to is an ethic of publicness by default in government, and we're far, far from that now, and we see new things bubbling out there trying to create more transparency in government...We have to assume that the actions and information of government are owned by the people and should be public -- except in cases of [national] security and personally identifiable information...

Other than that, everything government does should be open, but we're not there. Government should be asking us for permission to keep something from us, not to force us to ask permission to get our own information from the government. I think what will the more public age we're living in, in the age where we reveal our lives on Facebook and all over, is that we're going to expect governments to be more open.

RFE/RL: How do we go about implementing such a change?

That's the tension. I think we're living in a more transparent age, but big old institutions are going to try to revert into their old ways. In business, I think new start-ups that operate very publicly will become very disruptive to big old closed centralized corporations. In government, it's a bit harder to disrupt them because you can't just start a new government here and there. But in a sense, the Internet is a new government.

RFE/RL: "The Internet is a new government" is a pretty bold statement. What do you mean?

We can now create societies across national boundaries, and in a sense, the rules, the laws of those societies are created by, as Lawrence Lessing from Harvard says, by their code, so that there's a society built around Facebook and I can create a group of people who have similar interests and needs from anywhere in the world and we can operate under our own new rules and structures. And that's possible in this digital world in a way that wasn't so possible before.

RFE/RL: Let's back up a moment. We were talking about government secrecy, but what about the secrecy of individual citizens or online groups or societies?

We have so much talk these days about privacy and the dangers and fears around privacy and technology -- and that's fine, we should be looking at what could happen -- but at the same time we need to balance that with the benefits of "publicness." There are benefits to us as individuals to be open; there are benefits to us in our groups and communities; there are benefits to having open and transparent businesses and government; and there are benefits to pooling our knowledge, the knowledge of the crowd, which can give us all great value.

So I think we have to balance all this talk of privacy and all this fear of technology with the connections that the Internet now enables...

There is a role for anonymity on the web. It's necessary for whistle-blowers and it's necessary for people to speak under repressive regimes...So, there'll be a place for anonymity online. But I think that when it comes to standing up for what you believe in, when it comes to organizing people together, identity makes a difference [because] it adds value.

And so I think we're going to find more and more an identity-based community on the web. Facebook is part of the proof of that. Facebook is built on real identity and real relationships, and that's part of the reason it has grown so explosively.

RFE/RL: Entities like WikiLeaks emerge from hacking subcultures. In their eyes, they are the future of the Internet and of society. What do you say to that?

I think we're just living a new world that's going more and more digital and more and more open. It's not as if that digital is owned by some cult; we're all digital.

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