Editorial: The Leaky Pipe: Lead Pipers Weigh in on WikiLeaks


Leaky pipe

Photo by Flickr user ian boyd (CC BY-NC 2.0)



Let’s start off with a little background and context, just in case you haven’t been glued to the news to catch every nuance of the WikiLeaks story. The Guardian has a helpful timeline of the saga to get you (at least partially) up to speed, and if you don’t like theirs, there are plenty of others. Overall, the various issues and plotlines in the WikiLeaks story make it so complex that it’s highly challenging to summarize. The simplified version would go something like this:

Once upon a time, a young hacker (Julian Assange) decided that the world would be a better place if there were no secrets and all information were shared. He founded an international organization of tech-savvy activists (WikiLeaks) to create a protected, anonymous platform where individuals could safely share secret information and expose corruption. The organization was successful and began to expose all kinds of formerly secret information to the world. Unfortunately, the world was not entirely happy about it. The governments who had created the secret documents got angry and began to point fingers. The United States accused and arrested a young man (Bradley Manning) who they thought had betrayed them, while American politicians began to speak out against the organization. The U.S. government wanted to arrest the organization’s leader (again, Assange), but couldn’t figure out exactly what he had done wrong.

Suddenly, bad things began to happen to the organization. Companies that provided internet hosting, financial services, and other support for the organization began to close its accounts. Other tech-savvy activists with strong opinions about freedom of information (Anonymous) began to attack the websites of the companies that had closed the organization’s accounts. Next the Swedish police announced that they wanted to arrest the organization’s leader for taking advantage of two women. The women accused the leader of doing bad things to them, changed their minds, and then changed their minds back again. The U.S. got in line to prosecute him because he had made them look bad. Finally, the organization’s leader was arrested in London and a wacky liberal dude (Michael Moore) paid his bail so he could stay with a British friend and await trial (for what, we’re still not entirely sure). Most recently, the organization’s leader announced that he’ll be writing a book to cover his legal costs. Stay tuned for next year.

That brings us up to the present day. It is far from over, but a few Lead Pipers wanted to join the fray and weigh in on the situation from the librarian point of view. So here goes…

Kim on Information Activism & Scale

Considered as a historical document, the WikiLeaks “About” page reads something like the American Declaration of Independence. It describes as underlying principles of the organization a belief in “the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history.” It quotes Thomas Jefferson in the assertion that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It refers directly to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and specifically to Article 19, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” And, like those rebels who produced the Declaration of Independence, the organization behind the document is now facing the consequences. Within the past month WikiLeaks accounts have been closed or suspended by an increasing list of companies including Amazon, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, Bank of America, and Apple. EveryDNS.net pulled their primary domain, wikileaks.org, offline (though not to worry, they have seemingly endless mirrors of the site). Not to mention the sexual assault allegations filed against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden. Right or wrong, it’s an astounding modern tale of David v. Goliath on an international scale.

What’s a librarian to think? We, of course, have our own declaration, the Library Bill of Rights, which asserts that libraries “should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” It’s interesting, though not surprising, that one of the computer wallpaper options offered on the WikiLeaks “Support” page uses the same phrasing as a well-known library blog, “Information wants to be free.” Meanwhile, in the recent YouTube release of the Swedish television documentary WikiRebels, the term “information activist” was used several times to describe Assange. Evidenced in part by yet another rhetorically related library blog, I expect that many librarians would consider themselves information activists, if asked. In a post on The Young Librarians Series blog, Leah White defined an information activist as “a vigorous advocate of knowledge gained through study, communication, research or instruction.” Assange says that the people behind WikiLeaks, “believe a richer intellectual and historical record that is fuller and more accurate is in itself intrinsically good, and gives people the tools to make intelligent decisions.” While librarians don’t handle classified government documents on a daily basis, there’s a clear connection between the philosophy of WikiLeaks and that of our libraries. Information creates a knowledgeable citizenry, and a knowledgeable citizenry makes better choices.

Yet all libraries are clearly not on the same page when it comes to WikiLeaks: the Library of Congress, mother ship of all U.S. libraries, blocked access to the controversial website from its computers, though they apparently reinstated it later. Even the most opinionated information advocate — in fact, Assange himself (based on the change in WikiLeaks policy to edit later documents) — acknowledges that if the release of classified documents may cause harm to individuals named in those documents, there may be limits to how much information is good information. There is a line where information may shift from empowering to dangerous, and WikiLeaks has been walking that line. Still, the crux of the issue is whether an organization should have the right to publicly release leaked documents, which boils down to freedom of the press. When is it okay to censor a media organization? There’s no easy answer to that question, particularly when you consider an organization that exists outside the laws of any particular nation.

Complicating the issue, the most fascinating aspect of the WikiLeaks controversy is the fact that it’s a completely new phenomenon. Documents have been leaked in the past, both in the U.S. and in other nations, but they’ve been leaked to newspapers and other media on a smaller scale. The scale was smaller in large part because it took time to photocopy documents and send them to journalists, and once the documents had been leaked newspapers could only publish a certain amount at a time. The internet changed that playing field. What we’re seeing with WikiLeaks could never have happened before, and neither United States nor international law was prepared to deal with it. In an interview with Daniel Ellsberg, Assange’s predecessor commented:

This is the first really large-scale, unauthorized disclosure leak since the Pentagon papers. There has been nothing like it in the 40 years in between…. I couldn’t have released on this scale 40 years ago. In fact, I couldn’t have done what I did do without Xerox at that time. Ten years earlier I couldn’t have put out the Pentagon Papers.

WikiLeaks has gained so much attention not just because they are publishing classified documents, but because technology has made it possible for them to publish mind-boggling quantities of classified information without going through any traditional media outlets. Assange has coordinated with various international newspapers, but those papers have played the game on WikiLeaks’ terms. Furthermore, WikiLeaks is publishing this information without being subject to the laws of any individual nation, as their organization is distributed around the world. Most fascinating of all, behind Assange and WikiLeaks is a virtual guerilla army of the techno-savvy who have repeatedly–and with some success–attacked the companies who have taken a stance against WikiLeaks. We’re looking at a scenario in which the Web is like the nineteenth-century American West, and Assange is the new sheriff in town.

Eric on Transparency

If WikiLeaks has taught me anything, it’s the value of creating a culture of transparency. To be transparent is to have the ability to make decisions with clear objectives and reasoning and to be prepared with justification for one’s actions.

That’s the real value in transparency: you’re held accountable for your actions, and knowing that, you think critically before acting. You don’t want to make a mistake that will be seen by all, so you make sure your choices are sound. You make fewer poor decisions because you know what you do is in the open. Best of all, in a transparent society, you are ready to answer the “Why?” questions that will be asked after you’ve make a decision. Even if you make a mistake, you will have your reasoning to explain your actions.

On the Library of Congress’s blog, Matt Raymond shares the LOC’s statement on the decision to block WikiLeaks:

The Library decided to block Wikileaks because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information. Unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.

This is the equivalent of saying, “Them’s the rules.” It’s an easy out for government agencies. If the White House says so, then that’s the way it’s going to be. There’s no apparent critical thinking. There’s no reasoning. There’s simply following the rules.

I’m the father of a toddler. It’s much easier for me to say “Stop drawing on the wall with permanent marker” and put my kid into a timeout for defying that order than it is to get my kid to understand why drawing on the walls is a bad thing. After all, the kid will stop once put in a timeout. There’s no need to explain to him why his actions were bad–he just knows that there’s a punishment associated with that behavior and that’s enough to get him to stop. His toddler brain isn’t ready for critical thinking; it just responds to a negative stimulus.

At some point, he’s going to develop the capability to think for himself and solve complex problems. His vocabulary will shift from predominantly “NO” to predominantly “WHY?” My parenting strategy had better be ready for this. If I lay down rules like “Don’t dunk the kitty in the bathwater,” I had better be prepared with good reasons for why it’s a bad idea.

That’s much harder to do. It’s ridiculously easy to get my kid to follow rules now. As he grows, he’ll become more defiant if he can’t make sense of the rules of the house. This means I’ve got to be more transparent on why the rules exist; if I can’t come up with a good reason, I have to be willing to admit that they might not need to exist at all.

That’s the situation the Library of Congress was put in. It is enforcing a rule that has no apparent reasoning, and the American public is not a bunch of toddlers. The LOC needs to articulate the reasons for their actions. Perhaps they need to demand that the White House provide reasoning for its rules before following them. Simply citing a message from the White House is not reasoning.

Like the librarians who defied the PATRIOT Act by deleting circulation records and fighting the law in court, it’s time for the Library of Congress and any others who are told to ‘protect’ classified information to demand reasoning. It’s time for our government to be able to articulate why WikiLeak’d documents need protection in a way they helps us understand the decisions that are being made.

That said, I can’t claim that WikiLeaks should or should not be blocked. I haven’t read the vast majority of them, nor do I have the diplomatic or military expertise to know what would be a breach of security that would put real lives at risk. I do expect that the American public should demand reasons for civilian deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Because they are embarrassing” is not a reasonable explanation for their protection. We need to know because the actions taken by our military and government are on the American public’s behalf.

Transparency is hard. It requires time to think deeper about decisions, to be prepared with an articulated reasoning for one’s actions, and to communicate reasons to the appropriate audiences. It also means that when you make a mistake, you learn from it.

Leigh Anne Throws the Books at You

And now for something completely different: the role of print artifacts in a digital scandal.

In a case of dueling memoirs that simply cries out for Aaron Sorkin’s input on the inevitable feature film, both Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks co-founder, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (a.k.a. Daniel Schmitt) have acquired publishing contracts for their version of what one could call WikiLeaks Genesis.  Yes, you read that correctly:  two people who leveraged social technologies to turn world politics upside down are now seeking both commercial gain and cultural legitimacy in the form of traditional print books and conventional publishing channels. This is what happens, apparently, when you upset Amazon, MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal: you’re forced to spread your message via an outdated medium that is (I hear) dying.

I shouldn’t joke; it’s not funny. And yet, in some ways it is. It’s just not “ha-ha” funny. Perhaps it’s more akin to that uncomfortable laughter that settles over a party when someone expresses controversial opinions in mixed company. Once more the question arises, a question some librarians thought long-settled: what is the appropriate role and value of a physical book in a 21st-century library environment?

Random House/Knopf/Crown certainly sees value, to the tune of $1.5 million for Assange, who vows to pour it all back into WikiLeaks. In the temporary absence of pre-pubs and review copies, librarians are left solely with their ethics and policies as the basis for decision-making about books that are certain to fly off library shelves, if purchased. But is popular demand enough, in this situation? Does the permanence of a physical text imply inevitable inclusion in a physical library?

Put on your collection development hats, librarians, and ask yourself some questions.  Will you purchase Schmitt and Assange’s books for your collections?  At least one pundit claims Assange’s writing shouldn’t be published at all. How would you respond? Does your library own Assange’s prior work, Underground? If not, will you purchase it now? Other texts of cultural relevance have sprung up in both digital and print formats; will you purchase these?

To take it a step further, what is the relationship (if any) between your library’s collection development policy and its intellectual freedom policy? What portions of the ALA Code of Ethics are relevant to this discussion?  How many replacement copies will your library purchase if the works are stolen?  How would you respond to a library user’s complaint about the purchase? How long will these works be relevant to your collection?  At what point, if any, should deselection occur? How will you make all these decisions?

I ask questions rather than dictate conditions because I prefer to judge a book by its covers, as well as what lies between them. In fact I cheerfully volunteer to review both memoirs so that the library community may have the published professional review we so frequently fall back on as necessary for our collection decisions (Google me, Random House: I’m born digital!). While I personally fall firmly in the camp of those who believe information wants to be free, our own admiration of–or disdain for–the politics of WikiLeaks is not enough of an objective standard by which to make these choices.  One of our roles as librarians is to collect and preserve the cultural artifacts spawned in the wake of current events, be they memoirs, newspaper articles, blog posts or podcasts…provided we take the time and effort to craft a professional rationale, and ensure that the works meet its requirements.

Having discharged our responsibility to our patrons, what is our responsibility to ourselves as library workers?  The most wonderful thing about the decision to publish print memoirs of the WikiLeaks affair is that it forces librarians on both sides of the “print vs. digital” skirmishes to review their positions. Rather than continuously predict the death of print, why can’t technophiles concede that there are weaknesses in the digital publishing model that the traditional publishing model can supplement? Late adopters, for their part, now have the opportunity to learn, in a format they prefer, how digital activists like Assange and Schmitt are shaping the future, and why the tools they use have such critical implications for information storage and retrieval. There is a happy medium to be found here, and I’m confident that library workers can use the WikiLeaks scenario as a framework for questioning our assumptions, understanding our philosophical differences, and crafting a professional discourse in which opposing viewpoints coexist peacefully, rather than at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

In a delightful episode of serendipity, I’ve been reading Tracy Hickman’s novel, Song of the Dragon, between bouts of researching and writing this post. One of Hickman’s tribes is a race of elves called the Iblisi, whose function is to preserve the true history of the Rhonas empire, regardless of what fictions the various court factions cook up to gain favor with the Emperor. The Iblisi work secretly and silently, and few citizens of the Empire understand their work. However, without them, the Empire would crumble into utter confusion. So it is with librarians in the age of the 24/7 news cycle: we are here to manage the constant flow of data, and provide manageable frameworks for storage and retrieval. Sometimes that’s a book. Sometimes it’s a blog post. And sometimes, it’s a photo of questionable taste but cultural relevance. As long as the professional discourse about formats is rooted in logic, ethics and standards, I will be satisfied.

Battle on, WikiLeaks.  Battle on, librarians.  And may the odds EVER be in your favor.

Note: For those interested who will be in San Diego next week, you may want to join in on the ALA Midwinter discussion.

1 Response

  1. As the daughter of a career Foreign Service Officer, and as a public librarian for almost a decade, I have mixed feelings. I would even call my feelings scrambled eggs with green and red peppers.

    Over Thanksgiving I watched “Fair Game” (the Valerie Plame story, the spy outed by Scooter Libby) with my parents. What did I take from this movie and the conversations we had after the credits rolled? A heightened sense of what I already knew before I walked into the theater: that national security and covert intelligence are more important than what civilians might understand.

    Yes, transparency is important. But so is context and responsible reporting (aka journalism), and not just doing something “because I can.”

    I agree with journalist and blogger Gary Goldhammer, who wrote this in his blog, Below the Fold:

    “According to WikiLeaks, ‘publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people.’…yes, but not always. Transparency also requires judgment and analysis. Transparency unchecked will get people killed.”

    Making photocopies of classified documents willy-nilly and posting them on the web is the behavior of a hacker, not a journalist. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were journalists. Julian Assange and his cohorts are hackers. I also know that many librarians side with Assange & Co. because “Information wants to be free.”

    As a librarian, I *do* believe information should be free. But I also believe that information should be organized and contextualized. My job as a librarian is to help organize and contextualize information, and I am grateful for the work already done by journalists and librarians to find context not only for the WikiLeaks themselves, but also for what the Leaks mean for the future of journalism, the Internet, transparency, and national security.

    The way we share information is changing at a breakneck speed and the Leaks are for better or worse a part of that change. My hope is that we would continue to have the maturity to find context for the changes in information sharing and to help patrons understand that context. That is why I got my Masters in Library Science, after all.

    In answer to Leigh Anne’s questions about the book that is forthcoming, YES, I would buy the book for my library. Yes, I would restock it if it was stolen. I would do this for the same reason that I have no problem knowing that Tucker Max books live on my library’s shelves. To every book, their reader.

    I read somewhere that being an adult was the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your brain without going crazy. That’s where I stand with WikiLeaks. Scrambled eggs with peppers, red and green.