Wikileaks and the Paradox of Freedom of Information

It’s impossible to measure of course, but I would guess that the recent disclosure by Wikileaks of secret documents about the Iraq war has created more noise than the war itself. And that’s good. We want people to have information on human rights violations, especially when they occur on a national scale and when the cloak of war hides them from view. The Wikileaks model, whatever its deficiencies, and the whistleblower model in general are extremely important for the exposure of human rights violations. In many cases, we can’t count on the victims of those rights violations to stand up for themselves. Not only do they often fail to survive the rights violations, but they are generally in a position of powerlessness and domination, making it impossible for them to speak out and let the world know what’s happened. Third parties such as Wikileaks step into the void and expose what otherwise would remain unknown. Such exposure is important because we hope that it ultimately leads to the cessation of rights violations and/or redress for the victims.

This is true for human rights violations in general, not just those gross violations that occur during wartime. Even the daily, “small” scale rights violations in otherwise reasonably well-governed countries are often hidden from view. People try to expose those violations in various ways: they go to the press, they blog, they litigate, they associate, assemble, protest, educate themselves, boycott etc. And, as in the case of Wikileaks, third parties play an important role. For example, journalists investigate, and they have a powerful tool called freedom of information acts. Those acts are in fact legal versions of the Wikileaks model.

Both official and non-official disclosures of secret government information are crucial for the exposure of human rights violations, but they are plagued by the paradox of self-frustration. Let me explain. When government officials engaged in rights violations become aware of the risk or likelihood that what they do will become public (either through official freedom of information procedures or through the initiatives of whistleblower or “traitors”) they may act in two ways:

  • Either they change their behavior for the better,
  • Or they try to hide their behavior even further, for example by switching from written to oral procedures.

The latter option is not unrealistic. Assuming that people take that option, one also has to assume that the third party disclosure model can only function to the extent that those whose behavior will be disclosed are unaware of the possibility of disclosure, or at least as little aware as possible and dismissive of the likelihood of disclosure. But with every new disclosure, their awareness of the possibility of disclosure will increase, as will their evaluation of the risks of being disclosed.

On the other hand, one would want the citizenry in general to be maximally aware of the possibilities of disclosure: if no one knows of freedom of information acts, no one will use them. So in fact the third party disclosure model requires an unrealistic asymmetry in knowledge. If anything, the asymmetry will go the other way in real life: it’s likely that government officials are better informed about legislation and the possible effects of legislation than the citizenry in general. Hiding the possibility of disclosure to government officials, in the hope that their lack of knowledge will steer them away from tactical behavior aimed at frustrating disclosure, means hiding it for the public as well, and means that there will be no disclosure demands.

That’s a real paradox. And apart from this paradox, disclosure efforts face other problems as well. It’s obvious that some secrets are necessary. For example, government agencies for crime prevention can’t be required to publish the dates when they’ll intervene to trap criminals. Other agencies managing public procurement can’t be expected to divulge the content of an offer to competitor firms also interested in making an offer. Etc. Some of this secrecy is “due time” secrecy, in the sense that it’s temporary and that disclosure after some time won’t be self-frustrating. And perhaps all secrets are of this nature. But that also means that those who engage in “guerilla” style disclosure outside of official freedom of information procedures have to be careful not to frustrate the legitimate objectives of some secret operations.

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