In a piece for The New Republic, Noam Scheiber wrote, "I had the same cranky reaction to Time's Person of the Year choice as pretty much the entire Internet: It's hard to see the calculation that makes Mark Zuckerberg more influential than Julian Assange in 2010."
I guess I stand apart from the entire Internet. I had no problem with Time's choice (insofar as as the Person of the Year has any relevance at all any more). Facebook's impact on society globally has been huge, redefining for the foreseeable future the way people, groups, and organizations communicate. Much of that impact has crystalized over the past year.
In the meantime, WikiLeaks has been the most overhyped story of 2010, and possibly of the decade. The only reason it has attracted the attention it has is because some very promiment elements of the U.S. government (among others) reacted to WikiLeaks out of all proportion. While Scheiber suggests Wikileaks could spell the death of big business and big government, my view is that WikiLeaks hasn't changed anything. Nothing. Zilch. Here's why:
Leaks are nothing new
People have been leaking classified documents as long as organizations have been classifying them. But beyond the ho-hum fact that individuals, motivated by everything from moral indignation to profit, have long been leaking documents, consider that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission-an agency of that big government WikiLeaks is supposedly undermining-is proposing to pay people to blow the whistle. According to an SEC press release, the proposal would reward whistleblowers with a percentage of the sanctions collected from the companies on which they snitched.
According to SEC Chairman Mary Shapiro, "We get thousands of tips every year, yet very few of these tips come from those closest to an ongoing fraud. Whistleblowers can be a source of valuable firsthand information that may otherwise not come to light. These high-quality leads can be crucial to protecting investors and recovering ill-gotten gains from wrongdoers."
Online leak sites are nothing new
From reading the extensive coverage WikiLeaks has garnered, you would think that its founder, Julian Assange, invented the idea of a website that distributes leaked documents. In fact, Cryptome has been operated since June 1996. There are others.
WikiLeaks hasn't broken anything wide open
Name one major scandal unveiled in the documents WikiLeaks has released. Not something titillating. Not something embarrassing. I'm talking about a full-on, all-out scandal, the kind of thing that brings down politicians and CEOs.
If nothing comes to mind, that's because there's nothing there. As The Economist pointed out on December 2, "Foreign-policy experts are right when say they have learned little that is radically new. Revelations about the tireless nightlife of Italy's ageing prime minister will surprise no one. Given that hundreds of thousands of people had access to the cables, the sensitive stuff will already be in the hands of many a spy service."
Transparency was coming anyway
The biggest change many have predicted as a consequence of WikiLeaks' activities is that it will force institutions to be more transparent. But transparency was already a trend picking up steam. Sure, WikiLeaks may accelerate it a bit, but good grief, how long ago did Adam Curry first utter the words, "There are no secrets, only information you don't yet have"? Five years? More?
Since I started reading blogs, one of the recurring messages has been that organizations are operating under a microscope the likes of which they've never experienced before. The book I co-wrote with John C. Havens, Tactical Transparency, is just one of many titles covering the shift (the most important of which is probably Dan Tapscott and David Ticoll's "The Naked Corporation). All of these books are chock-full of examples of companies that are embracing transparency. And say what you will about the progress (or lack thereof) made in U.S. President Barack Obama's "Open Government" initiative, it says something that such an initiative was launched at all.
A lot of people credit U.S. President Ronald Reagan with the downfall of the Soviet Union. It's fascinating to me that those are, by and large, the same people who always argued that the Communist model was unsustainable and that the Soviet Union was doomed anyway. Reagan certainly pushed things along, but the Berlin Wall would have fallen and the Soviet Union would have collapsed even if Reagan had lost the election to Jimmy Carter. So it is with WikiLeaks and transparency. Some organizations may push their transparency agendas along more quickly, but transparency as the norm was inevitable anyway.
Organizations will just deal with it
While transparency will eliminate some of the ammunition whistle-blowers might disclose, there are legitimate reasons for secrecy, and some of those secrets will be prone to disclosure. Consider companies about to launch an IPO or merge with another organization; they are required to keep their counsel. What about labor negotiations, always held in private, and for good reason? What about product plans companies want to keep out of the hands of competitors?
For those organizations with legitimate needs for secrecy, they'll come up with protocols that better protect those secrets. A whole cottage industry is likely to emerge with consultants and entrepreneurs developing the means by which organizations can minimize the risk of leaks.
However, organizations will be more judicious in determining what needs to be confidential.
As for those organizations that do suffer or perish entirely because they continued to function opaquely? Tough noogies; you got what you had coming to you. And it would have been coming to you even if WikiLeaks had never existed.
But didn't the WikiLeaks story amplify the conversation?
That's the argument made by someone with whom I engaged in this conversation via Twitter just after Time named zuckerberg its Person of the Year. Yes, the media coverage has amplified the conversation. A lot.
But so what? Conversation was amplified around the media's out-of-proportion coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death, too. What is the outcome of all this conversation? Greater awareness? Maybe in the short term, but look how quickly the general public has forgotten the post-earthquake horrors that still characterize daily life in Haiti. Even if more people are motivated to leak documents and blow the whistle, it'll probably be a phenomenon that occurs for a limited period of time before things settle back into a more leisurely pace.
Coverage of Julian Assange will keep WikiLeaks stories alive, even though the Assange stories have become distinct from the site he founded. Assange has become the stuff of People, Us, InTouch, TMZ and the National Enquirer. How that coverage elevates the conversation is beyond me.
The REAL story
So WikiLeaks is a non-story. If the State Department and the Air Force hadn't made such a big damn deal about it, it never would have amassed the kind of coverage it has. But the big story that has emerged from WikiLeaks hasn't gotten nearly the coverage Assange's alleged sex "crimes" in Sweden have received. That story is Anonymous. I wouldn't have argued if Time had named Anonymous its Person of the Year.
In its support of WikiLeaks, Anonymous has exhibited behaviors that are the polar opposite of transparency. Claiming to endorse the release of confidential information, this group of hackers hides behind anonymity while circumventing the right of those who disagree with WikiLeaks to express their views and act upon them. While claiming on the one hand to support Assange's right to publish what he likes, Anonymous is downright giddy about punishing dissent.
You may not like Visa and Mastercard and Bank of America, among others, for withdrawing services it had offered to WikiLeaks. It was, however, their right to do so. Boycotts are perfectly legitimate actions. But Anonymous is actually having a chilling effect on speech: I thought long and hard before even writing these words for fear that Anonymous, unhappy that I'm expressing a view contrary to their own, will launch a DDoS against this blog. We'll see. I'm guessing my lack of influence and visibility will make me too inconsequential to draw Anonymous' wrath.
Ultimately, though, the whole WikiLeaks story is a lot of hot air about an activity that was not new and shifting organizational behaviors that were already well underway.