Why I signed the WikiLeaks NDA

Becky Hogge offers some thoughts on the WikiLeaks gagging order story.

I confess I didn't think too hard before I signed a non-disclosure agreement with WikiLeaks in October 2010. It helped that I wasn't planning on doing anything to undermine the organisation's operations, that the penalty mentioned for doing so was a mere £100,000 – and not the £12m detailed in the document released by the New Statesman last week – and that, unlike last week's document, there was no clause gagging me from speaking about Wikileaks's own operations. I skim-read the document, noted how badly drafted it was, saw it was to expire a fortnight or so later, and took my chances.

As a result, I got something I have taken to regarding as a quaint souvenir from the heady days of information anarchism, embellished with the signature of the world's most wanted man. I'm not particularly proud of this attitude, especially as I ended up doing almost no work for the organisation in exchange for my trinket.

What a cynical and misleading headline for a blog post, you might be thinking, and you'd be right. But then, isn't that sort of eye-catching sensationalism the stock-in-trade of the mainstream press? Yes, it is, and that's the point.

In his original post accompanying the leaked NDA, David Allen Green writes that there is "no other sensible way of interpreting" the £12m penalty clause it contains than as an indicator that WikiLeaks regards itself as "a commercial organisation in the business of owning and selling leaked information". I would like to offer him an alternative interpretation, one I hope he finds sensible.

I would like to suggest that what WikiLeaks has been attempting to do is engage with the commercial media on its own terms, in order to draw more attention to the material it leaks. Or, to put it in more theoretical terms, to create artificial scarcity in an environment of information abundance, in order to make its operations compatible with the commercial operations of the world of newspapers.

Think of it as the economics of the scoop: if everyone has access to WikiLeaks's material, it is of very little value to any one news organisation, and therefore no news organisation is likely to invest the time needed to research, interpret and contextualise it. As David Allen Green himself observes in a subsequent post: "The commercial value in the information is firmly connected to the "exclusivity" of these commercial agreements." By giving selected news organisations exclusive access to material for a window of time, WikiLeaks can make sure the material will have maximum impact.

This isn't just guesswork. Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg laid out this strategy about six months before the release of the Afghan War Logs, at the December 2009 Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin (eight minutes in to this video, and continuing in this video). Having explained their intentions, Assange concludes: "If we release the material and it has no political impact, we're not doing our job."

The flipside of this approach, as many have pointed out in the comments to David's original post, is that once that window of exclusivity ends, WikiLeaks can and does publish a dossier of information in its entirety. Thus it gets all the benefits of working with the mainstream press, including the sensationalism and misleading headlines, while also guaranteeing we can all look at the original documents and decide for ourselves.

By contrast, the diplomatic cables, which escaped WikiLeaks's control once they "leaked" from the organisation, possibly in the time before NDAs such as the one I signed became standard practice, have yet to be fully disclosed in the same way. That keeps us in thrall to the agendas of the news organisations that do have access to the full set of cables, a situation for which I believe we the public are so much the poorer.

Julian Assange could well be a little emperor, the NDA certainly is poorly drafted, and it may be terrible PR. But remember that WikiLeaks is an organisation conceived and run by computer hackers. Underlying the contract is a complex logic that is ultimately consistent with the aims of a non-profit organisation that seeks to support – and not exploit – the bravery of whistleblowers.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.