After my post below on the rape charges against Julian Assange, I got some interesting comments from zunguzungu, which I’d like to respond to more fully, because I think they illuminate some of the tangled strains of narrative surrounding the case.
Item 1: I can’t make claims that Assange is callous toward people who may potentially be harmed by Wikileaks, because there have been no documented “victims”.
No, I don’t know of any specific “Wikileaks victims” – but of course, I don’t claim to know of any. I have no idea if people have, or have not, been harmed by Wikileaks. I simply assert that it is very possible that this sort of extreme transparency, particularly to the extent that it relates to Power Structures and Men With Guns, may cause people harm. Researchers (and journalists) who do work in Burma and other extremely repressive places don’t obscure their sources out of posessiveness or an innate love of secrecy, they do this because their sources are at risk of extreme bodily harm. Let me be crystal clear: I support transparency and openness, including but not limited to open research and open data, and I even support the goals of Wikileaks in most respects. This leads me to
Item 2: Saying that Wikileaks may harm people is used as an argument against transparency, and transparency is a good thing.
Of course transparency is a good thing. Could it also be a harmful thing? Yes. It could, and in fact I think it’s quite likely that people are being harmed, or will be harmed, as a result of the flow of information coming from Wikileaks. Does this mean that Wikileaks should be shut down? Of course not.
Information is an extremely powerful force within society – this is why the whole Wikileaks enterprise has been so disruptive. I welcome the disruption. But, to crib from the superheros, with great power comes great responsibility. If your world-saving project has negative unintended consequences, you don’t do the semantic sidestep and say that your good intentions mean that nothing could have gone wrong. You act like a grown-up, accept that you may have hurt someone, and accept the consequences for what they are. This is accountability. This is responsibility. This is the point of transparency!
You don’t call it collateral damage. You call it harm, and if the vision of that deed haunts your dreams for the rest of your life, so be it. Hopefully you will be able to do enough good that your cosmic balance sheet stays in the black. The world we are trying to build is one where the free flow of information can’t hurt you unless you’ve done something wrong. But we’re not there yet.
(I actually want to slide off into talking about white privilege here, but I won’t. That’s a whole nother post, and, since I am supposed to be reviewing for a law final right now, I ought to stay on topic and stop writing. Also not going to talk about positionality, situatedness, or objectivity because my Donna Haraway Hat is in the wash.)