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WikiLeaks And The Pandora’s Box Of Radical Transparency

While WikiLeaks' ideology is still a little hazy (despite this manifesto), many have ascribed to the group motivations of radical transparency. They have been cast as freedom fighters ushering in a new age of accountability, where the authorities will be beholden to the digitally enabled masses.

Radical transparency is one of those ideas that quickly takes hold, often before you have a chance to know quite what’s happened -- or what it even means. As information has been digitized and democratized, it has inspired the way corporations respond to their clients. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has said, “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Different maybe, but not necessarily better. Whether we like it or not WikiLeaks is a game changer. It challenges our notions of what constitutes media, privacy, diplomacy, and transparency. But it leaves many of us unsettled, conflicted. Perhaps what troubles many of us -- the source of that consternation -- is how this brave new world of radical transparency might affect us. Maybe we are nervous because we wonder how well our lives, personal or professional, would stand up to such scrutiny.

Enabled by technology, radical transparency surrounds us -- and sometimes we don’t even know it’s there. A teenager can end up publicly shamed after inadvertently broadcasting a sordid conversation on her Facebook Wall to friends of friends. A private direct message to a lover can be broadcast to thousands of followers on Twitter with the slip of a button.

In a world where many of us carry a recording and instant-publishing device in our pockets, transgressions that once remained private can now become global news stories in minutes. TSA agents can’t talk to passengers anymore without running the risk of being recorded and broadcast on the Web.

We celebrate disruption as long as we are not the ones being disrupted. With WikiLeaks, anything’s fair game, right? The U.S. government? Sure. The banks? Bring it on. The company we work for. Well, sure, but first there’s a few things I’d like to clarify as I wouldn't want anything to be taken out of context. My college indiscretions? Well hang on a minute!

The problem with such a fundamentalist approach to transparency is that it doesn't allow for human indiscretions or weaknesses. It revels in failure, in playing gotcha, and pays little attention to nuance. When it exposes corrupt governments, well, more power to the exposers. But what happens when a colleague with a grudge exposes our company emails to the world and WikiLeaks, or whoever follows in their tracks, believes that that information is juicy enough to publish? (Forget notions of “public interest” as the leakers’ ideas of what that constitutes might be vastly different to yours.)

What happens when, bereaved by a recent death in the family, we explode at a mail carrier whose colleague happens to be filming on his iPhone? The footage goes viral and, in a reputation economy where Google is the currency, that is now how we are defined. Our names can be cleared in courts, but they will remain sullied on the Internet forever. Perhaps those celebrating the principle of an indiscriminate data dump would feel differently if the targets were people or organizations they hold dear.

The genie of digitization is out of the bottle and WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are just the beginning. WikiLeaks will spawn many more clones. In a few years, we could have NGOLeaks, DefenseLeaks, GoldmanSachsLeaks, McDonaldsLeaks. Many of us will cheer as officials and managers are revealed to be unscrupulous loathsome brutes guilty of corporate malfeasance. We will be unsparing in our condemnation. Until, that is, we are exposed (unfairly of course!) as that loathsome boss, or perhaps our small NGO’s slightly dodgy accounting is exposed by a rival in a bid of grant funding. If you thought trial by media was bad, wait till you try trial by search algorithm.

With radical transparency comes responsibility. Not only do organizations like WikiLeaks liberate information, but they also become its new gatekeepers. Do I really trust WikiLeaks, a shadowy alliance of hackers and anarchists accountable to no-one, to use that information in an ethical and accountable way?

Or do I trust Anonymous, a group of cyber-vigilantes linked to the 4chan image board who have carried out DDOS attacks against companies that stopped offering their services to WikiLeaks. They believe in radical opacity, hide behind Guy Fawkes masks in public, and take down websites of people they don’t like, yet they have been lauded for their mischievous memes and digital activism in the press. In an article titled "The internet's cyber radicals: heroes of the web changing the world," 4chan's founder Christopher "Moot" Poole told "The Guardian" that "Anonymity -- including anonymous posting -- is something to be protected." Unless you're a diplomat presumably. Or anyone else they happen to disagree with.

Hopefully, after the period of WikiDisruption we will establish ethical mechanisms to deal with radical transparency and laws to deal with indiscriminate data dumps. But those celebrating the type of radical transparency that WikiLeaks offers should be careful what they wish for.