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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times