Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Thoughts On Wikileaks

Say what you will about Ron Paul, on certain issues he argues more clearly than any other politician currently in office.  His recent defense of Wikileaks from the House floor is fantastic.  This recent Wikileaks media freak-out is fascinating for many reasons, but I suspect much of it has to do with Julian Assange's slightly James-Bond-villain qualities.  If you don't believe me, check this out (yes, it's real).

The New York Times recently had some interesting commentary outlining other facets of the Wikileaks controversy, notably a discussion of the technological context that made Wikileaks possible.  Since the digital and information revolutions began, information of every type has grown in magnitude and become increasingly accessible.  This has been an overwhelmingly positive thing for the planet, even if certain groups or industries have been damaged by it (think music industry).  But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that more information is always better and that technological change is always positive.

The question of whether Wikileaks is good or bad is a tricky one.  There are different answers depending on the population in question: it could be bad for the U.S. and yet good for humanity (it is most certainly good for journalists... or is it?).  A good way to analyze this question is by looking at property rights.  Patents exist to create incentives for individuals and businesses to innovate; if an inventor can't exclusively own or control his invention, others can free-ride and the whole system falls apart.  This fear of corroding property rights is at the heart of most critiques of internet mega-trends.  Bloggers free-ride off big news corporations' investments of on-the-ground reporting, thus reducing the incentive to invest in reporting.  Intelligence loses much of its value if not kept secret, so Wikileaks free-rides off government investments, reducing the value of it's operations.

The internet causing a devolution into anarchy is a major theme in many of science fiction writer Neal Stephenson's books.  In Snow Crash, the CIA spins off and morphs into a private company involved in the buying and selling of information.  In The Diamond Age, government's inability to tax anonymous business transactions results in anarcho-capitalism.

Now, I don't think Wikileaks is there yet in terms of impact, but these admittedly fantastical futures do reveal one crystal-clear fact: that cryptography and information security will become increasingly important as the volume and velocity of information increases.

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