josie on Wed, 10 Nov 2010 16:40:35 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Contain This! Leaks, Whistle-Blowers and the Networked News Ecology

Hi nettimers,

I thought you might be interested in an article Felix Stalder wrote
following on from some of the discussions that were had on this list in
response to the WikiLeaks saga. This is one of the clearest accounts I've
read of the symbiosis between the networked circulation of information and
the news ecology as it is reformulating itself against a backdrop of
ubiquitous but nonetheless chaotic information distribution.

Very best,


Contain This! Leaks, Whistle-Blowers and the Networked News Ecology

By Felix Stalder

In the wake of WikiLeaks' recent headline-busting exposÃs, a very
different news and informational landscape is emerging. Whilst
acknowledging the structural leakiness of networked organisations, Felix
Stalder finds deeper lying reasons for the crisis of information security
and the new distribution of investigative journalism

WikiLeaks is one of the defining stories of the internet, which means
by now, one of the defining stories of the present, period. At least
four large-scale trends which permeate our societies as a whole are
fused here into an explosive mixture whose fall-out is far from clear.
First is a change in the materiality of communication. Communication
becomes more extensive, more recorded, and the records become more
mobile. Second is a crisis of institutions, particularly in western
democracies, where moralistic rhetoric and the ugliness of daily
practice are diverging ever more at the very moment when institutional
personnel are being encouraged to think more for themselves. Third
is the rise of new actors, 'super-empowered' individuals, capable
of intervening into historical developments at a systemic level.
Finally, fourth is a structural transformation of the public sphere
(through media consolidation at one pole, and the explosion of
non-institutional publishers at the other), to an extent that rivals
the one described by Habermas with the rise of mass media at the turn
of the 20th century.

__Leaky Containers

Imagine dumping nearly 400,000 paper documents into a dead drop
located discreetly on the hard shoulder of a road. Impossible. Now
imagine the same thing with digital records on a USB stick, or as
an upload from any networked computer. No problem at all. Yet, the
material differences between paper and digital records go much further
than mere bulk. Digital records are the impulses travelling through
the nervous systems of dynamic, distributed organisations of all
sizes. They are intended, from the beginning, to circulate with ease.
Otherwise such organisations would fall apart and dynamism would grind
to a halt. The more flexible and distributed organisations become,
the more records they need to produce and the faster these need to
circulate. Due to their distributed aspect and the pressure for
cross-organisational cooperation, it is increasingly difficult to keep
records within particular organisations whose boundaries are blurring
anyway. Surveillance researchers such as David Lyon have long been
writing about the leakiness of 'containers', meaning the tendency for
sensitive digital records to cross the boundaries of the institutions
which produce them. This leakiness is often driven by commercial
considerations (private data being sold), but it happens also out
of incompetence (systems being secured insufficiently), or because
insiders deliberately violate organisational policies for their own
purposes. Either they are whistle-blowers motivated by conscience,
as in the case of WikiLeaks, or individuals selling information for
private gain, as in the case of the numerous employees of Swiss banks
who recently copied the details of private accounts and sold them
to tax authorities across Europe. Within certain organisation such
as banks and the military, virtually everything is classified and
large number of people have access to this data, not least mid-level
staff who handle the streams of raw data such as individuals' records
produced as part of daily procedure.

This basic data processing needs to be efficient, that is, data access
and sharing has to be possible. It cannot be restricted by too much
red tape, overly stringent security clearance requirements or the
too strict compartmentalisation of the data into distinct sets that
cannot be connected. After all, this inability to connect data located
in different bureaucratic domains was one of the main criticisms
coming out the enquires into the 9/11 attacks. There is an inherent
paradox. Vast streams of classified records need to flow freely in
order to sustain complex, distributed and time-sensitive operations.
Yet, since the information is classified, it needs to flow within
strict boundaries which cannot be clearly defined on a general level
(after all, you never know what needs to get connected with what
in advance), and it needs to flow through many, many hands. This
creates the techno-organisational preconditions for massive amounts of
information to leak out.

WikiLeaks, on the other side of the equation, created a custom-made
infrastructure to receive these torrents of records. More than a
decade after the heady discussions by cypherpunks who dreamed of
total anonymity through full encryption, WikiLeaks managed for the
first time to create an effective infrastructure for anonymous
communication. Rather than relying purely on technology, they
built social intelligence (filtering, editorial control) into the
system in order to encourage only one type of anonymous speech
- whistle-blowing - while insulating themselves from the usual
criticisms of anonymous communication (child-porn trafficking and
the like). Yet, the transformation of the materiality of records
and the new infrastructures only create possibilities, and cannot
single-handedly explain why certain containers are actually very leaky
while others are not.

__Institutions Adrift

Is it a coincidence that so far the vast majority of WikiLeaks'
material has originated from within institutions in democratic
systems? I think not. In its rhetoric, Western politics is becoming
ever more moralising. Tony Blair was the undisputed master in this
discipline. He could speak passionately about 'humanitarian wars'
which were supposed to advance human rights. Afghanistan was to
prosper under the warm attention of allied forces, follwing decades of
neglect and civil war. This time, the invasion was going to develop
the country, rebuild infrastructures, liberate women, give children
hope and whatnot. The Iraq war - once the weapons of mass destruction
turned out to be imaginary - was about liberating the Iraqi people
from despotism, bringing democracy to the Middle East and ushering
in a new era of peace, rule of law and commercial opportunities. All
in all, these were just wars, wars we wanted to fight, wars soldiers
could be proud of fighting. To some degree, there is always a gap
between political rhetoric and practice, particularly in times of
war. Yet, there is a qualitative difference now. Western political
systems seem to have lost their ability to construct overarching
historical narratives that would justify and give meaning to their
actions and make sense of the ugliness that is part of any war. Since
the end of the Cold War, politics can no longer be said to pursue a
historical project creating a void which has been papered over by
empty moralising.

However, if a superficial morality is all that is left, then the
encounter with the brutal day-to-day operations of the battle field
is unmediated and corrosive. The moral rationale for going to war
quickly dissolves under the actual experience of war and what's left
is a cynical machinery run amok. It can no longer generate any lasting
and positive identification from its protagonists. In some way, a
similar lack of identification can be seen within corporations, as
evidenced in the leaks from Swiss banks. With neoliberal ideology
dominant, employees are told over and over not to expect anything
from the company, that their job is continually in danger and that if
they do not perform according to targets they can be replaced at a
moment's notice. There is no greater narrative than the next quarter
and generalised insecurity.

This emptying out of institutions takes place in the context of a
general transformation of work away from strict hierarchies and
the unquestioning execution of commands towards a more involved
style of cognitive labor. Thus, people are told to engage more fully
with their work, to become more creative, more self-reliant, more
entrepreneurial. Simply following orders without investing one's
creativity and personality is no longer enough. Thus, there is a
second internal contradiction. People are asked to identify personally
with organisations who can either no longer carry historical projects
worthy of major sacrifices or expressly regard their employees as
nothing but expendable, short-term resources. This, I think, creates
the cognitive dissonance that justifies, perhaps even demands, the
leaker to violate procedure and actively damage the organisation of
which he, or she, has been at some point a well-acculturated member
(this is the difference to the spy). This dissonance creates the
motivational energy to move from the potential to the actual.


There is a vast amount of infrastructure - transportation,
communication, financing, production - openly available that, until
recently, was only accessible to very large organisations. It now
takes relatively little - a few dedicated, knowledgeable people
- to connect these pieces into a powerful platform from which to
act. Military strategists have been talking about 'super-empowered
individuals' by which they mean someone who

    is autonomously capable of creating a cascading event, [...]
a 'system perturbation'; a disruption of system function and
invalidation of existing rule sets to at least the national but
more likely the global scale. The key requirements to become
'superempowered' are comprehension of a complex system's connectivty
and operation; access to critical network hubs; possession of a force
that can be leveraged against the structure of the system and a
wilingness to use it.1

There are a number real weaknesses to this concept, not least that
it has thus far been exclusively applied to terrorism and that it
reduces structural dynamics to individual actions. Nevertheless, it
can be useful insofar as it highlights how complex, networked systems
which might be generally relatively stable, posses critical nodes
('systempunkt' in the strange parlance of military strategists) which
in case of failure that can cause cascading effects through the entire
systems.2 It also highlights how individuals, or more likely, small
groups, can affect these systems disproportionately if they manage to
interfere with these critical nodes. Thus, individuals, supported by
small, networked organisations, can now intervene in social dynamics
at a systemic level, for the better or worse.

This picture fits WikiLeaks, organised around one charismatic
individual, very well. It is both its strength and its weakness.
Its strength because it has been able to trigger large-scale events
quickly and cheaply. If WikiLeaks had required multi-million dollar
investment upfront, it would not have been able to get off the ground.
Yet, it is also its key weakness, since it remains so strongly centred
around a single person. Many of the issues that are typical of small
groups organised by a charismatic leader seem to affect WikiLeaks as
well, such as authoritarianism, lack of internal procedure, dangers
of burnout and internal and external attacks on the credibility of
that single person (if not worse). Such charismatic leadership is
often unstable and one must suspect that all of the issues - positive
because of the super-empowerment, as well as negative because of the
pressures baring down on it - are multiplied to an unprecedented scale
in the case of WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange. It's hard to
imagine how this can be sustainable.

__A New Public Sphere

The public sphere as an arena for political discourse and a
counter-balance to the state has been in decline for a very long
time. While it's unclear when this decline started - Habermas puts
it at the beginning of the 20th century - it's fairly obvious that
it has accelerated since the 1980s, following waves of deregulation
and consolidation in the media business. Political and economic
pressures led to an increase in the amount of 'soft news', people
stories, and commentary and to a decrease in the investigative
reporting being conducted. That's a well-known story. At the same
time governments have learned to play the game of access and leaks.
Journalists are being skillfully fed with insider information and
become increasingly dependent on having access to the centres of
power. The embedded journalists at the beginning of the Second Gulf
War were the most blatant example of this development. For both
sides, this is a good arrangement. For the media, this is much faster
and cheaper than doing its own research and for the government, it
helps in controlling the story, not only by feeding the information
(and even providing 'experts' to be interviewed on TV), but also by
threatening to withdraw access from journalists and media who don't
tow the line. Last but not least, the legal protections of journalism
are effectively weakened, in part because challenges are launched
more aggressively, in part because commercial media view critical
reporting through the eyes of their risk-averse legal and accounting

In the face of the evident crisis of news media, there has been much
hope that the internet - the blogosphere and citizen journalism
- would be able to replace the old, obsolete structures. On the
whole, this has not happened, which is not surprising since new
media never simply replace old media. What we can see, however, is
a slow, structural transformation of the public sphere in which the
old news media is complemented by new actors, designed to address
the weaknesses of the mainstream media while making use of its core
capacity to bring stories to lots of people. All in all, the process
of investigative journalism is reorganised and, one can only hope,

In a news ecology, the traditional news media remains the most
important delivery channel for news. It knows best how to package and
deliver news effectively. The legal risk associated with publishing
sensitive information, however, is outsourced, to WikiLeaks in extreme
cases, or to blogs and other operators without assets in normal
circumstances. At the same time, there are new sources of funding and
investigative journalism outside the main stream media. In the US,
Pro-Publica, with philanthropic money from the Knights Foundation,
was established in late 2007 as an 'independent, non-profit newsroom
that produces investigative journalism in the public interest',
because 'many news organisations have increasingly come to see it as
a luxury."3 In April 2010, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
was launched in London with a very similar aim, funded by the Potter
Foundation it's also a not-for-profit.4 Both units are partnering
with traditional news media, print and television, which will
carry the stories they investigate. In addition, new collaborative
infrastructures, such as DocumentCloud, 'an index of primary source
documents and a tool for annotating, organizing and publishing them'
is providing the infrastructure to cope with very large amounts of
materials efficiently across newsrooms and organisational boundaries.
The various elements that make up the process of investigative
reporting, (protecting the source, doing the time-consuming work of
gathering and making sense of information, providing the tools for
handling the material, and delivering the story to the public at
large), are no longer performed by a single organisation but by a
networked set of organisations, mostly dedicated to performing only
one of them well, and all based on different economic models but still
working together to move the story into the public sphere. Within this
new ecology, WikiLeaks is the actor taking on the most risk, which
leaves the others relatively free to act within an otherwise highly
constrained environment.

In a way, this changes the character of the final product, the news
story, as well. It brings traditional reporting - where source
material is usually kept unpublished - and blogging, where source
material is usually linked to, closer together. Since WikiLeaks
publishes the material anyway, many of the newspapers that turn
its records into stories do that as well (rather than only quoting
a sentence or two). On the whole, this makes the stories more
transparent and, frankly, more interesting to read. As far as one can
tell already, stories written with DocumentCould tend to be similar.
Whether this amounts to 'scientific journalism' as Julian Assange
hopes, journalism that publishes its source information the same way
that scientists publish raw data and research methods, remains to be
seen. But the combination of having access to a highly edited story as
well as to sprawling source material could be very powerful.


It's very hard to assess the fall-out from WikiLeaks, since there
are so many variables at play. It's pretty safe to say leaking will
continue to be an important method of informational politics quite
aside from the fate of WikiLeaks. What changed with WikiLeaks is the
scale of the leaks - both in terms of mass and sensitivity. Rather
than playing politics as usual, WikiLeaks is capable of interfering
within it and setting its own agenda. But what can it accomplish? The
most modest goal stated by Assange is raising the 'secrecy tax'. As he
wrote a few years ago in an essay on 'The Non-linear Effects of Leaks
on Unjust Systems of Governance',

    the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks
induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This
must result in minimization of efficient internal communications
mechanisms (an increase in cognitive 'secrecy tax') and consequent
system-wide cognitive decline.5

The more an organisation has to protect against leaks, the more the
internal contradiction between the requirement to share information
(to operate efficiently) and that of controlling information (to keep
it secret) will become prevalent and negatively affect its capacity to
carry out its mission. Assange's objectives are likely to be realised
in this more narrow respect, but it is unclear whether the 'tax' will
be high enough to limit the power of organisations such as the US
military, or whether it will simply need to invest more resources to
carry on doing the same thing as before.

Beyond this, much will depend on how long WikiLeaks can operate. The
pressures that bear down on it are tremendous and its institutional
base seems relatively feeble, despite, or more likely, because of
super-empowerment. How far the media partnerships with the new
ecology of journalism will support it, is also far from clear.
The New York Times, for example, is playing it both ways. It is
selectively working with WikiLeaks, but toning down its coverage.6
Its avoidance of the term 'torture' has become so strenuous that
even the unpolitical blog BoingBoing mocked it by scripting 'The New
York Times Torture Euphemism Generator!'.7 At the same time, the
NYT is actively participating in the global smear campaign against
Assange.8 The other mainstream media in the US are more openly hostile
and are continuing their spin. Fox News claimed that the Iraq War
Log contained information about weapons of mass destruction and one
of its commentators demanded that WikiLeaks activists be declared
'enemy combatants' and called for 'non-judicial action', meaning
targeted killings, against them.9 As long as the (US) media remains
so dependent on insider access to power (to receive the officially
leaked information), their willingness to engage fully with the
material published by WikiLeaks will be limited. Their engagement ,
however, will be critical since the interpretation and the political
consequences of the leaks will not depend on the facts alone.

Felix Stalder <felix AT> is a non-military analyst,
lecturer in theory of the media society at the Zurich University of
the Arts and one of the moderators of the mailing list nettime. He
lives in Vienna, travels abroad and archives his public output at

1 'The Super Empowered Individual', Zenpundit, 28 October 2006,

2 John Robb, 'The Systempunkt', Global Guerillas, 19 December 2004,




6 See Glenn Greenwald, 'NYT v. the World:
WikiLeaks coverage', Salon, 25 October 2010,


8 John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, 'WikiLeaks Founder
on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety', 23 October 2010,

9 Stephen C. Webster, 'Fox News editorial: WikiLeaks employees
should be declared "enemy combatants"', 25 October 2010,

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