Wikileaks as an abortive sign of the amplification of media governance (1)

The Wikileaks media panic is part of the amplification of governance process that has been at work in the cyberist moment, when the shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 is accelerating change by leaps and bounds. ICT-driven media have moved from a centralized technology that allowed for little participation to a decentralized network of broadband applications and browsers enabling platforms such as Wikileaks. In contrast to the Web 1.0 client-server model, dominated by tethered applications, Web 2.0 uses distributed network architecture via peer-to-peer coordination (P2P) and shared resources (such as disk storage or network bandwidth). The users are both suppliers and consumers of information. In this paradigm shift, from the post-modernist era to the cyberist era, the behavior of the end-users, as they become contributors and producers of information, tends to displace traditional secrecy to the margins of Web 1.0, as only a small part of the privacy issue, while other concerns, such as anonymity, traceability, surveillance and counter-surveillance, come to the center of Web 2.0.


The Wikileaks panic gives several signs that it might lead to a full-fledged public debate on governance, contributing thus to the amplification of a process that is slowly maturing but is not yet reached. In the four phases that I describe in Media Matters in the Cultural Contradictions of the Information Society –Towards a Human-Rights Based Governance, i.e. Debate, Dilemma, Denouement and Displacement, the Wikileaks panic has reached the second phase:

1)      The Debate around a trigger event is over:  the leaking of 251 287 cables from more than 250 US embassies around the world has attracted attention on the potential for disclosure of the networks with ensuing damages and democratic exchanges. It has created a sense of anticipation in the general public that usually doesn’t question its use of the networks and doesn’t have a concrete notion of the risks to privacy and secrecy that are attendant to online presence.

2)      The Dilemma is ethical in nature and on-going:  the discussions on the value of secrecy, authenticity and accountability reveal some of the cultural contradictions of the “Information Society” in relation to power and knowledge. Definitely at issue here is the cultural contradiction of diplomacy, as it deals with privacy and secrecy with a total lack of public oversight in a democracy as strong as the United States that has also become an Empire. Conversely it underlines the limitations of transparency without reciprocity as the United States are not the only country behaving in such a way… It has mobilised, even polarised, public opinion, with emotional and intellectual appraisals, associated to interpretation and reflexivity as provided by the 5 newspapers in charge of analysing the leaked information (Le Monde in France, El Pais in Spain, Der Spiegel in Germany, The Guardian in England and the New York Times in the United States themselves).


The next two stages are still up in the air and will probably come through in an unsatisfactory manner:

3)      The Denouement usually brings a temporary resolution through negotiation: ideas are being tested against each other, and there is talk of finding legal frameworks but there is no yet any compatibility established between the various actors implicated. The governments are trying several measures, some of which are not so legal (such as intimidation, hacking…); the private sector has been cutting support to the Wikileaks platform while freedom fighters and human rights advocates in civil society have complained of such actions (and hacked back).

4)      The last phase, Displacement, is supposed to move the issue away from the initial status quo: this is far from being the case, as responses are national and not addressing the issue at global level. There is no revision of values, no establishment of a higher authority for assessing the legitimacy of the Wikileaks actions and reactions, no alternatives to secrecy in diplomacy adapted to Web 2.0…


These last two developments need to be examined critically as they can be seen as benefiting people whose accountability is not proven and whose capacities for by-passing requirements are not checked by anybody but themselves, self-management often being confused with self-regulation. The reactions of some governments, the compliance of some private sector companies in striking back, the back and forth hacking between pros and cons are a proof that there is no political framework yet to deal with the issue, let alone a legal one. As a result, basic human rights are not applied, be it freedom of expression or right to privacy…


What the Wikileaks controversy illustrates is that for a multi-faceted model of governance to be set, it has to be more issue-oriented than layer-oriented, contrary to what has been taking place up to now, where the focus of network management has been on the technical layer under the aegis of the entities that rule the net, be it Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These entities and the governments that depend on them will not move unless there is a series of media panics and political controversies, such as the one created by Wikileaks. Such controversies are part of a process that could be called “democracy by engaging project”, inspired by the notion of diplomacy by “catalysis” promoted by Brian Hocking, where a broad diversity of actors convene around a specific issue to solve.


For this to work, the controversy has to be self-contained and task-oriented, so as not to over-ride or over-lap with other projects (such as Wikipedia for instance). To maintain a complex balance between heterogeneous actors, effectiveness and legitimacy are important factors. This has been demonstrated in the second phase (Dilemma) with the responsible press institutions that have been processing the mass of documents leaked by selecting out meaningful samples and extracts and helping frame their content, with a certain degree of interpretation by national institutions, so that the local outreach of the event is also demonstrated. The synergy between the old and new media has been demonstrated as well as the capacity of the independent press to play a role in feeding public opinion, whatever the mode of entry of the information. Such press is finding its role in the cyberist moment, much as it did in the times of early republics. It has leaped ahead and it has reached phase 4 (Displacement of the status quo) as the opposition between old and new media has become obsolete.


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Wikileaks as an abortive sign of the amplification of media governance (1) by Divina frau-Meigs est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Pas de Modification 2.0 France.
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