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.