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Why WikiLeaks Is More An Opportunity Than A Threat for Open Government

By Andrea Di Maio | November 30, 2010 | 6 Comments

open government data

The publication of hundreds of thousands of pages of classified material on WikiLeaks has sparkled debate on whether technology is threatening national security and how governments should deal with information leaks caused or amplified by technology.

It is fair to say, as many commentators have, that this is nothing new, and what is new is probably the scale, due to how fast information can be shared today. Also, there is nothing new in how few people have looked into what WikiLeaks has actually published, and how most people have relied on what the press quoted.

Of course, episodes like these can have a negative impact on open government initiatives, as new measure to intensify security may stifle also the availability of public information, as highlighted in this NextGov article. On the other hand, better information scrutiny and enforcement of codes of conduct may contribute to increasing the quality of information that gets published. Even if we switch from a firehose to a trickle of open data, what is important is that such data is accurate and that it demonstrably contribute to creating public value.

What WikLeaks shows, in fact, is that – irrespective of how data has been acquired – those who are willing to put effort into publishing are the usual suspects: press, political activists and the likes. WikiLeaks also shows that they have means to acquire information that we, normal people, do not. So what’s the point of throwing open data to people if the main result is to make cheaper for usual suspects to make their cases?

So, while I am sure that many will look at WikiLeaks as a threat to openness, I actually believe it is a good thing. It may turn to be an overdue call for open government proponents and enthusiasts that they should start targeting those (be they individuals, groups or communities) who do not have the resources or the interest for reading and mashing up data, but could benefit from that in the context of their everyday lives. Lives where what politicians and state department officers say behind close doors is of rather limited interest.

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  • sanchezjb says:

    Andrea, it’s important to remember that the Wikileaks incidents have happened because of weak information access controls, not information sharing.

    Unfortunately, it appears that the Wikileaks incidents are becoming increasingly, and incorrectly, primarily associated with information sharing vs. information access. The Nextgov article, “Countering WikiLeaks could stifle info sharing” @ and a Washington Post article, “With better sharing of data comes danger” @ unfortunately clearly associate what Wikileaks has released with information sharing. Additionally, as of about 15 minutes ago, a Google search of “Wikileaks” & “Information access:” yielded 25,500 results vs. “Wikileaks” & “information sharing:” that produced 194,000 results.

    While there are risks to information sharing (and these risks should be assessed), it will be unfortunate if the primary focus on taking corrective actions to address the Wikileaks incidents focuses on and constrains government information sharing that has good momentum behind it. The primary focus should be on, as you stated, “better information scrutiny and enforcement of codes of conduct.”

  • @sanchezjb – Absolutely, but I still think that there is a need to step back from the religion of transparency for the sake of transparency, and focus open government initiatives (an money) on areas like service delivery than just politics.

  • Mike Dismont says:

    I believe that wikileaks can have some positive effects. For one it allows us to talk about things other than what the kardashians are wearing for a few days and two it strengthens our citizens’ rights to know about how the US is interacting with other countries. This will ensure somebody is watching those who are watching us 🙂

  • lenand says:

    I rather hope it stops governments from doing and saying things that are unlawful. It may develop a better conscience in public servants. Perhaps it will start revealing the corruption that is prevalent in many countries.

  • Christian Thies says:

    I am completely agree. If there is something that threatens national security, is goverment actions. Another fact I see is reaction of people and organizations touched by this revelations. They focus on critics making public the documents, rather than veracity.

  • bob ashley says:

    The “sharing” vs “access” distinction displays a certain level of technical, semantic slippage. It may be important but I’m sure the distinction is too fine to be grasped by the average citizen or media consumer or producer. Sharing, at least, colloquially, is form of “bi-lateral” access or exchange.

    Where one comes down on interpreting wikileaks as breach or opportunity is interesting, I think, because at bottom it’s likely reflect one’s view of humanity in general. For instance, my view is that this will prompt fearful leaders to tighten the screws to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. On the positive side, I think it helps scribe the limits of transparency, Full transparency is neither humanly possible, nor practical, nor productive in many instances. It has a naiive, mythic quality about it, which Wikileaks successfully brings into the foreground.