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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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