Welcome Micah Sifry, TechPresident.com and Host Siun

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Wikileaks And The Age Of Transparency

Siun, Host:

Micah Sifry’s been out in front of the new developments in transparency and media for quite a while. His work with the Personal Democracy Forum and his writing at techPresident continue to chronicle the ways technology leads to major changes in American democracy.

Now Micah has written a fascinating book, Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency. Particularly timely as we watch both Bradley Manning’s prosecution and the immense changes in North Africa and the Middle East, Sifry not only talks about Manning, Assange and the release of both the Collateral Murder video and the state department cables – but tells the bigger story of old closed hierarchical systems being overtaken by open, lateral relationships.

The change isn’t only coming from campaigns and other organizations or figures opening themselves up from the top down. It’s also being created from the bottom up, as we literally carry in our pockets and on our laps the ability to connect and collaborate directly with each other, without requiring permission from the people formerly known as the authorities. And when you combine connectivity with transparency – the ability for more people to see, share, and shape what it going on around them – the result is a huge increase in social energy, which is being channeled in all kinds of directions.

For Firedoglake readers, Sifry’s discussion of the use of new tech in politics will be familiar territory. He includes FDL’s coverage of the Libby trial for example as well as some wonderful inside tales from our developing web communities that everyone will enjoy. But he also traces such steps as the opening up of the EDGAR database which are less familiar and form the critical history of how the internet has opened up information to us all.

Along with his important discussions of open information efforts in Croatia and Kenya, Sifry analyzes the disappointing outcomes of Obama’s campaign promise of transparency and apparent embrace of new media. For all of us who’ve watched with frustration, for example, the tweets by P J Crowley during the uprisings in the Middle East, Sifry’s comment that:

Unfortunately, usage of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook have come to be seen as proof that government officials and politicians have embraced the networked age, when in fact most of the time they are still just talking at their constituents rather than with them.

But as Sifry goes on to describe, it is the developments from the bottom up that are the core of the new transparency. Technology provides the tools for connections and disclosures completely outside the control of either traditional media or government secrecy and controlled selective disclosure.

Describing why Wikileaks takes transparency to a new level:

But the reason the current confrontation between Wikileaks and the United States government is pivotal event is that, unlike these other applications of technology to politics, this time the free flow of information is threatening the American establishment with difficult questions. And not at the level of embarrassing one politician or bureaucrat but by exposing systemic details of how America actually conducts its foreign and military policies.

Sifry provides considerable insight into the dynamics of Wikileaks and points out how transparency cannot now go back:

If all it take is one person with a USB drive, the “least trusted person” who may feel some contradiction in his or her government’s behavior prick his conscience, that information can move into public view more easily than ever before. That is today’s new reality of the twenty-first century. It would be far better for all of us if our governments and other powerful institutions got with the business of accepting that transparency will be a new fact of life, and take real steps to align their words with their deeds.

Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency is a book that you can share with friends to introduce them to this new world at the same time it fills out the story for those of us who have been following closely. Sifry puts Wikileaks in context – and he knows how to be a good tour guide to both the technology and the politics. In the end, this book educates us – and calls us to be participants in the new transparency:

But it is critical to recognize that transparency is a necessary corrective to excessive government power. What we are pressing for is not the power to be Big Brother, watching everyone from above, but rather a flock of Little Sisters, watching government from below.

105 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Micah Sifry, Wikileaks And The Age Of Transparency”

BevW March 5th, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Micah, Welcome to the Lake.

Siun, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Hi everybody. Really honored to be here. FDL and its community is living breathing proof of many of the ideas and trends that I discuss in the book.

dakine01 March 5th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Good afternoon Micah and welcome to FDL this afternoon

Good afternoon Siun!

Micah, I have not had an opportunity to read your book but do have a question. Forgive me if you address this in the book.

With all the Wikileaks releases and the various governmental responses across the globe, it seems rather obvious that the “genie” is out of the bottle yet most all governments will do everything they can to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Do you have any sense of how succesful or unsuccessful the governments will be?

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Thank you Bev – and Good afternoon Micah!

What a timely – and important book.

While the information on Wikileaks forms a core of Micah’s new book, it’s a part of a larger and more important story – a story of change and transparency. And it’s amazing to be discussing precisely this on the afternoon that Egyptian activists have broken into the AmnDawla secret police HQ and are sending out files and videos via youtube and twitter.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:05 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 3

I guess it depends what you mean by the “genie.” In my view, all of politics has always been a battle between organized people and organized money, and the rise of people-driven transparency shifts the terms of that battle somewhat. But governments and corporations will no doubt continue to try to control information even in this new environment, where individuals and self-organizing networks can liberate and share critical information more easily than before.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Until legislation makes U.S. internet unaffordable for ordinary people.

Also govts have discovered ‘kill switches.’

And USG will assassinate Assange as soon as there’s an opportunity, both to get rid of him and to be a lesson to other leaker wannabes.

If the promise is there, govts must snuff it out. They can’t possibly allow challenges to their absolute authority.

Those are some of the issues on the dark side of challenging the Powers-That-Be, if you’d care to address any of them.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:07 pm
In response to Siun @ 4

Great point. I’m watching events in the Middle East unfold and wondering at what point the files of the secret police agencies start getting liberated. Equally important will be the records inside government agencies that handle the economy and foreign relations.

emptywheel March 5th, 2011 at 2:09 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 7

I think they are as we speak–aren’t protestors in the Alexandria archives?

In any case, welcome–will post my comments/questions below.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:09 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 6

I’m not as pessimistic as you, nor as convinced of the all-encompassing power of the USG to snuff out opposition. There is no Internet kill switch in the US, for example (though I suppose if you want to consider the imposition of martial law as a trump card, I guess there is). Read Jonathan Zittrain’s helpful analysis of the US “kill switch” issue here for more background.

March 5th, 2011 at 2:10 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 7

The Egyptians already have a twitter feed #Amndawla for the State Security files. It’s astounding what they’re already finding.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Early in the book, Micah writes about the elemental changes in the economics of time, connectivity and information as being central to the change we are seeing via new technology.

I was particularly taken by the discussion on connectivity:

While there is still a limit to how many genuine connections one individual can have with others, there is no inherent limit to the number of connections that a community may create laterally. A “one-to-many” email list may look valuable … A many-to-many network, however, can have millions even billions of intimate ties.

This change in relationship, in how far our connections can stretch now, seems crucial to all we are seeing and I’d like to ask Micah to say more about that difference between one-to-many and many-to-many. (As I was reading, I wrote next to that paragraph the word “ummah” since this new form of global community certainly reminds me of the Islamic concept of the ummah or community of believers – and I wonder if the extremely effective use of new tech we see in Egypt, etc also draws on the earlier awareness of connection?)

March 5th, 2011 at 2:12 pm
In response to Kelly Canfield @ 10

For instant right now:

wikileaks WikiLeaks
by monaeltahawy
RT @moftasa: State Security uses a product by a German company called Gamma to hack into our skype accounts http://is.gd/6DcOfs #amndawla

Hacking into Skype; yikes!

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Aloha, Siun and Micah…! Mahalo, Micah, for taking the time to be here today…!

Micah, one thing I’ve been trying to point out in the State Cables and even in the War logs was the fact that they’re not gospel…! In that they must always be viewed as mere opinions formed by the writer, in the Cables, and, in the case of the war logs is that they’re basically only ‘reports’ approved/reviewed by, usually, the actual perpetrators of the crimes, consequently, lacking in real accuracy…!

Do you agree, and, could you expand on it…?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:13 pm
In response to Kelly Canfield @ 10

It’s an amazing and necessary moment. One of the larger arguments I make in the book is that we’re entering an age where powerful institutions must either choose to become more transparent (in order to earn public trust) or to have transparency done to them, from below.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 2:14 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 7

As I was following twitter this morning, I saw one activist inside AmrDawla tweet that he had located his father’s file … those are world changing moments, eh?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:16 pm
In response to Siun @ 11

We’re just starting to learn how to weave strong networks out of all these naturally occurring lateral connections. Right now we actually have more laterally generated information than we know what to do with (some call that information overload). What we need are a) better filtering tools and b) a new kind of “leader” that some of us call the “network weaver.” And then we also have to turn these ways of doing things into stronger cultural norms, so the sort of trust that forms among people working together laterally and transparently can be spread to others.

March 5th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I so wish I could stick around for this Salon, but have to run back to the ICU. I’ll come back and read the thread later; bet it’s a doozy!

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 2:20 pm

You liken these lateral relationships to “church suppers, rent parties, barn raisings” writ large which is a great image.

Can you say a bit more about the kind of leadership you see as needed – we certainly see new models of leadership evolving in Egypt for example where you have organizers but not one ideological line or structure.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:20 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 13

Yes, that’s a good point. I’d add two responses.

First, the cables and war logs DO have the value of being genuine internal government reports with far less varnish on them than what they’ve dribbled out to the public. So, for example, the fact that the Pentagon lied and indeed kept an Iraq body count, as shown by the Iraq war logs, is quite significant.

Second, we need to keep an eye on the fact that WikiLeaks is no longer the sole source for the release of the cables. Both the NYTimes and the Guardian have the full archive, according to their own statements. So, it’s fair to ask now, when a story does–or doesn’t–appear, using or not using as-yet unreleased cables, why the Times or the Guardian made the choices it made. For example, Reuters has been doing some interesting stories based on cables it’s gotten, such as a 1996 cable on Saudi corruption, but I haven’t seen the Times cover that.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 2:24 pm

We’re just three years post-Obama campaign, a campaign which was portrayed as new media driven, as “bottom up” and as committed to transparency.

Micah, how do you feel the Obama White House has – or has not – lived up to that image?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:24 pm
In response to Siun @ 18

Like I said above, the new kind of leader is a “network weaver,” not a charismatic figurehead. A few years ago at Personal Democracy Forum, we did a great panel with Gina Cooper of YearlyKos, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, and Brian Behlendorf of Mozilla and Apache. Each in their own way has led a new and powerful kind of community, but by being inclusive, transparent, honest to a fault, vulnerable to admitting mistakes, inviting participation, etc. These days when I see someone who is being said to be a “leader” of this or that group, I ask–how to they measure on those qualities? All too often, we get “leaders” who the MSM has appointed for us, or people who crave the spotlight, and the good news is that they aren’t nearly as strong as they appear. The network effects build around network weavers.

SanderO March 5th, 2011 at 2:27 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 9

How can you say there is no internet kill switch… All they have to do is shut down the main server farms and providers and the internet goes out like a light bulb.

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 2:31 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 19

I agree that they do still have significant value, my only quibble is that people are treating it as ‘gospel’…! The Grey Lady has long since lost any vestige of it’s once formidable integrity…! Today’s tongue bath of David Koch is a prime example…! Btw, have you followed any of Aftenposten’s coverage of the Cables…?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:32 pm
In response to Siun @ 20

You know, I had some real hopes that Obama would be different than his predecessors. Even though his campaign wasn’t nearly as bottom up as portrayed (think of how his staff took over the Obama MySpace page that volunteer Joe Anthony had built up over two years prior as a key sign of how they operated, which I wrote about here), they definitely involved people in innovative ways at the grassroots and indeed trained thousands of people in community organizing.

But Obama had no serious plan to continue involving the base in governing. Back in the fall of 2008, I was one of a few people trying to put more attention on that issue, but for the most part people were either a) euphoric, b) exhausted, or c) focused on getting jobs in his administration.

For a while, the administration did offer an open door to push on when it came to making government data more open and also enabling agencies to become more interactive and in some cases involve the public in new kinds of collaboration to make government work better. But for the most part, I believe Obama personally dropped the ball and his top political circle didn’t care about the issue at all. Where there has been positive change, it’s been by people inside agencies that were chomping at the bit to use new media to become more open and participatory. The White House communications team’s use of new media has been almost entirely top down, with a little bit of “participation theater” thrown in. And as we’ve seen, on the national security side of information control Obama is as bad or worse than his predecessor.

Jane Hamsher March 5th, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Thanks so much for being here today Micah, and for all your efforts with PDA.

What do you think of the HB Gary documents, and what they reveal about the efforts of private contractors to use social media to jam the networks with (for lack of a better word) paid trolls? Do you think at some point it is going to have to be necessary to have “identity hardening,” as some have suggested, in order to push back against the kind of programs that are being developed so manage multiple identities?

I guess my larger question is — what’s to prevent well-funded corporate interests from polluting and distorting social media pools the same way they’d pollute a lake or a river? That seems to be their plan for pushing back against the influence of Wikileaks. Destroy those who defend them.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 2:32 pm
In response to SanderO @ 22

And I might add to SanderO’s Q the evidence that every time the USG asks for ‘cooperation’ of private firms to illegally spy on U.S. citizens, those firms have ‘chosen’ to ‘cooperate.’

You mention that stories have not appeared in the NYT. That’s bc the NYT asks the USG permission before it publishes anything.

With USG & private communications oligopolies in kahoots, how does connectivity of small people have a chance?

SanderO March 5th, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Don’t you accept the fact that he who controls the channel controls the message and these days the elite control both.

The airwaves belong to no one, just like the air belongs to no one, yet American has given these to corporate interests to not only use them for their profit, but use these airwaves to dumb the people, manipulate the people and control them.

Ain’t capitalism in America great!

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:34 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 23

In general, I follow three main sources for the ongoing WikiLeaks revelations: Greg Mitchell’s fantastic daily live blog at The Nation, WL Central, and the Guardian.

SanderO March 5th, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Since the notion of the whistle blower as someone who is to be rewarded for protecting the interest of the public, but to be punished for exposing the malfeasance of the elite, anonymous leaking will become more common.

It will ultimately become a test of how many insiders can be brainwashed to keep their mouths shut. If they kill Assange one way or the other, it will be a strong incentive to silence anyone who thinks they can leak and be protected by morality.

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 2:37 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 28

Ooh, mahalo for Mitchell’s link…! ;-)

SanderO March 5th, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Why do you suppose Wiki is holding back their leaks? What’s the goal here? Is this some sort of chess?

Jane Hamsher March 5th, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I had forgotten that when Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon papers to the NY Times, the courts temporarily stopped them from publishing them. So Ellsberg gave them to 17 more papers.

Giving them to more than one publication was smart. They act as a check on one another.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:41 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 25

Thank you for all you do with FDL!!
You ask a hard question. I think the HBGary emails are fascinating and disturbing. It’s not clear how much they prove about the use of paid trolls, though there’s no question that potential exists and is probably being used to some effect already. (I’m equally weirded out by recent stories about the Air force using “persona management software” to enable one person to “become” 75 fake people on online networks, also for the same purpose.)

My gut reaction goes in two directions. If you are someone who is doing something that needs absolute trust among the participants, then only work with people who you know. An Egyptian activist recently described an example of this to me: a group can buy mobile phones with anonymous SIM cards and know that if they only use those phones to call each other, their internal network is safe. But once one person uses one of those phones to call anyone else, the network has to be assumed to be compromised.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about public discussions and collaborations, the answer to the problem you’re raising may be transparency. If you won’t use a real name, we won’t trust you. That would have the value of filtering out many “paid trolls” but it could also make it harder for some people who need to protect themselves from participating in such discussions. Smarter people than me have to come up with an answer to this.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 2:42 pm

To push Jane’s analogy of the use an historic example of corp interests taking command of a common good, like water & air, it had to get so bad, like Monongahela River catching fire, before the USG did anything about it. Is that the model for the internet? Its suppression must get so extreme it cannot be ignored before anyone does anything about it?

I have a sorta tech Q too. White hats & black hats. Whose side are they on? Who is cleverer, those employed by govts or those who aid leakers? Or don’t we know?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:45 pm
In response to SanderO @ 31

Unfortunately, I think WikiLeaks is “holding back” partially because the organization isn’t in great shape. Julian has lost the support of key volunteers from last year (people like Daniel Domscheit-Berg, his #2; Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic MP; and Rog Gonggrijp, a Dutch hacker) and is undoubtedly distracted by his legal troubles. So, I don’t think there’s a “strategy” of holding back as much as there is a problem of Julian being a bottleneck causing document releases to be held back.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:47 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 32

Yes, I think it was very smart of Julian to bring in not just the Guardian and the Times last summer, but also Der Spiegel and ultimately El Pais and other outlets. The cumulative effect is that the papers can check and balance each other a bit. But I am now a bit concerned that we have this odd situation where just a few papers have the full State Department cable archive and they have admitted they don’t have the resources to read every cable–hence they are sitting on news that they may not realize is news (like the Tunisia cables).

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 2:49 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 36

Why not al Jazeera? Are they too compromised by emir of Qatar?

Phoenix Woman March 5th, 2011 at 2:50 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 35

WikiLeaks is currently offering its services to the Egyptian people to piece together the documents shredded by the secret police before they absconded. This may well be what gets WikiLeaks back on its feet.

By the way, is Domscheit ever going to create OpenLeaks or is that dead in the water (or coopted by various governments as has been rumored)?

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 2:50 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 33

…to enable one person to “become” 75 fake people on online networks

*heh* Adds a whole new dimension to Sock Puppetry…!

So that was the extent of that AF software, or does it do even more…?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:52 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 34

I wish political activists would spend more time with techies and vice versa, you have so much to teach and learn from each other.

The tech community largely “gets” what is so valuable about the open internet and has been in the forefront of defending that (see the IEEE, EFF, Berkman Center etc) against bad government policies and predatory telecommunications companies and the copyright cartel. There are serious issues about the future of the internet but so far we still have something that is far more open and useful than any prior communications medium.

If anything, the response to WikiLeaks is serving as a wake up call for a lot of people who were (like me) dismayed by how easily companies like Amazon caved in to a little whiff of government pressure. As I said at the beginning of this chat, history is a continuous battle between organized people and organized money. We can defend the open internet but we have to pay attention, get organized, and support institutions like the Electronic Frontier Foundation who are doing vital work on this front.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 2:53 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 38

To push Phoenix Woman’s Q one step farther & referring back to my Q on White Hats vs. Black Hats, what is to prevent the White Hats (our side, even if it is more tech savvy, which you didn’t opine on) from being bought off by corps or threatened by power of govts?

Phoenix Woman March 5th, 2011 at 2:53 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 36

A good part of it is knowing which outlets will be glad to release which cables. Some nations will be more than happy to embarrass the US but not so happy to see their own dirty secrets aired.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Well today we seem to have jumped from Wikileaks coordinating the distribution of documents to a specific set of papers – and potentially being a bottleneck – to Egyptian activists seizing huge caches of papers themselves. People are now asking that anyone who took files today copy them then turn them over to the state prosecutor but this is certainly a whole new level of “transparency” – with pluses and minuses!

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:55 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 38

It will be interesting to see what WikiLeaks can do in this regard.

Personally, I’d like to see whatever bank files they claim to have. Also those Swiss bank accounts would be interesting.

Lots of people can get involved helping the Egyptians piece together the records they are liberating. I hardly see why this is the smartest use of WikiLeaks time.

As for Open Leaks, my understanding is that they are working in a deliberate fashion and presumably we’ll see some products when they’re ready. While this isn’t rocket science, it isn’t as easy as starting a blog!

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:55 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 41

Nothing except people’s consciences and the power of public disclosure. What else is new?

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 2:56 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 40

I wish political activists would spend more time with techies and vice versa

Very funny & very relevant. We would if we could. We live in entirely separate worlds. Any tips on how we can get together for the ‘common good’?

SanderO March 5th, 2011 at 2:57 pm

At WBAI radio we have hackers who are quite political…

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:57 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 37

I don’t know. I think al Jazeera is for the most part a fantastic news organization and as long as people remember that it is based in Qatar and dependent on the government there, we can judge accordingly. Rule of thumb: Don’t trust any one news source alone.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 2:59 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 46

For starters, come to my conference. Personal Democracy Forum brings together around a thousand activists and techies (political hacks and software hackers) for two days in June in NYC, precisely to help build those bridges.

Jane Hamsher March 5th, 2011 at 3:00 pm

That is the double-edged sword. Protecting anonymity of whistleblowers, for example, is imperative, and if we don’t let people participate anonymously, we may shut out important voices who can’t speak openly.

On the other hand, if you allow some anonymous troll with 76 identities who is being paid by Palantir or BofA or the Army to sit there with his 10 well-paid friends and their 76 identities to jam the networks with propaganda, honest discussion gets drowned out and people start to believe their bullshit.

One recent example about how people’s opinions can be effected by 24/7 PR campaigns was polling that was done on the unions, and how Americans support their right to collectively bargai. We sit here all day and hear GOP/Chamber of Commerce claptrap drone on and on about how Americans hate unions, and they fill up a disproportionate part of the spectrum.

I imagine even the union people themselves were surprised to find out how popular they are. After a while you hear it so often you start to internalize the message.

No easy answers.

(sorry, in response to Micah’s comment above, for some reason reply button didn’t work)

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:01 pm
In response to Siun @ 43

Obviously they are going to mainly need Arabic speakers, to work on this. But one thing I’ve noticed is how well FDL has managed to involve large numbers of its readers in swarming around a set of documents or constructing a complex timeline. Sharing the “how to” of that social knowledge would be great for many other efforts.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Micah – in your book, you provide some very good resource lists and certainly make the case for bottom up activism. What are your suggestions for steps we should be taking? organizing?

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:04 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 51

We have had some wonderful collaborative efforts – look at the work around Bradley Manning’s case amongst others.

I’m not sure we’ve ever thought of providing some kind of “how to” for that but it’s a very interesting idea.

Phoenix Woman March 5th, 2011 at 3:06 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 44

What raised a number of people’s eyebrows is Domscheit’s statements to the effct that they would be working with governments to decide what to release and that they wouldn’t be releasing anywhere near as much as WikiLeaks has so far. That has led to an assumption that OpenLeaks is compromised from the start.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:10 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 50

Siun: Great question. I tried to include an array of transparency organizations and projects, so if you’re in the US and you’re focused on exposing political corruption, you can join in with my colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation, which has many points of entry for activists, bloggers, journalists, hackers and plain old good citizens; but if you aren’t in the US and want to plug in to the transparency movement elsewhere, I tried to give a representative array of resources.

In the US, there are a couple of big priorities, especially in the wake of the Citizens United decision. We need real-time online transparency of the political influence system. That means disclosure of who is paying for any kind of independent expenditure in the political arena. For starters, Sunlight Foundation is focusing hard on opening up the lobbying system to greater transparency. Right now, the level of required disclosure is pretty weak. It’s as if police investigating a robbery at a bank were told they could see the videotape of the ATM machine, but only three months after the fact. Members of Congress and their staff, as well as government executive and regulatory agencies, should be required to disclose, on a daily basis, all the contacts they have with registered lobbyists and the purpose of those contacts. We also have to close the loophole that allows mega-influencers like Tom Daschle to avoid registering as lobbyists. And then we need a lot of help connecting the dots, so we can see how their interlocking relationships and interventions affect legislation in real-time, not just after the fact.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:10 pm

As I mentioned, Micah, you do reference a number of important examples of transparency actions outside the US. I’m curious if PDF has a large international attendance and if there are collaborative efforts going on amongst global activists?

I think we put a lot of focus on, for example, the political campaign’s use of new media – and many missed the growth of populist organizing that was happening elsewhere.

Phoenix Woman March 5th, 2011 at 3:10 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 50

Exactly, and yet the fact that unions are still popular despite the literally tens of billions of dollars spent on dmonizing and attacking them over the dcades makes me hopeful that even the propaganda machines at the disposal of the US government and its corporate patrons is not enough to totally brsnwash people.

Jane Hamsher March 5th, 2011 at 3:11 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 36

What kind of a model would you suggest for release to different organizations? There again is a double-edged sword: release them too widely and security could be compromised and details released that probably shouldn’t be, as with the Afghan war logs. Release them too narrowly and they can be much more easily squelched by influence-wielding of the powerful.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:11 pm
In response to Siun @ 53

Amanda Michel wrote a great article for the Columbia Journalism Review about what it was like to try to coordinate the thousands of volunteers who swarmed in to help report Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” project in 2008. We need you guys to share that kind of knowledge.

Jane Hamsher March 5th, 2011 at 3:13 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 57

It still achieves its desired result: sucking up tons of energy on the part of the unions to fight it. They have taken a huge beating since the 80s directly as a result of Chamber-led efforts. The collective impact may be unpersuasive to most, but it’s not inconsequential.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:14 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 54

I think the good news is that no one will have a monopoly on this, including OpenLeaks. But in my personal dealings with Daniel Domscheit Berg I have found him to be honest and honorable and so I give him the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

The truth is that potential whistleblowers will still have to be wooed by potential publishers, and potential publishers (openleaks or whomever) will have to demonstrate that they can be trusted. The human element in whistleblowing and publishing disruptive information doesn’t go away in a digital age.

Phoenix Woman March 5th, 2011 at 3:15 pm

By the way, one of the things to come out of the Egyptian SS files is that Sweden and the US have been actively working together to send people to Egypt to be tortured.

Remember, one of the themes that the anti-WikiLeaks people have used to pooh-pooh Assange’s fears of Swedish extradition is that contrary to his claims the US and Sweden don’t really work together on that sort of thing. That particular pooh-pooh has been exposed as, well, poo.

That reminds me: Interpol put out a red alert for Assange but only a yellow alert for Gaddafi. Kinda tells us something.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:17 pm
In response to Siun @ 56

PdF draws about 10-15% of our attendees in NY from overseas. As a response, we’ve started satellite conferences, twice in Barcelona (where Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg spoke in 2009 in fact) and once in Santiago. We are looking to continue those and may eventually branch further into places ranging from Scandinavia to India. There is also a global conversation about transparency and technology projects emerging which we are part of but which is centered more on the Global Voices project (see here for details).

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:22 pm

I loved the information in the book about Sen Moynihan’s support for more openness … what set us back?

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 3:22 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 50

What continues to amaze me is how popular ‘centrist’ policies are, like unions, SS, universal medical care, despite relentless demonization by corp media. So while some at FDL denigrate U.S. public for caving into relentless propaganda and relentless economic pressure against their own interests, I’m actually surprised how, despite that, so many remain true to their own values.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 49

I might just show up. I’m in the area.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Jane Hamsher @ 58

Jane, you keep asking such hard questions!

No one knows the right answer to this. There’s a germ of a model in what WikiLeaks has done in forming these loose partnerships with major newspapers and in slowly leaking key documents rather than “dumping” them all online at once. But it isn’t as if one can choose all the circumstances of a leak!

To me, it’s vital that we keep building better filters to help us keep track of and make use of the information that is getting out. Unfortunately, our tools (at least, the free and cheap ones that are available) aren’t nearly as good as they need to be. Reading today’s NYTimes story about these algorithms for document sifting made me quite jealous! Sunlight Foundation is working on developing tools for making transparency simpler. For example, you can run any document thru Poligraft.com and a sidebar will open showing you the money-and-politics connections of many of the entities named in the story, without you haven’t do to anything to look that up.

But to really get the kind of network effects we need going, we also need better linking practices. Every time you mention of Member of Congress on FDL, you should link to their page on OpenCongress.org. That will have the effect of pushing that page higher up in Google search results, and ultimately mean that when people look up their Member of Congress online, they’ll see a full unvarnished picture, not just the PR version, as one of the top links.

Scarecrow March 5th, 2011 at 3:26 pm

It would seem a huge challenge here is the willingness of the US govt to bring the full weight of its prosecution/legal anti-terrorist system down on people who provide and transfer the information. This is a point where, in an earlier era, we might have hoped for major media outlets like the Times, etc to battle the government, to help in the fight. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. The Times works in collusion with the govt, or so it seems. How do you assess this risk, and is it true that this relationship of media to govt has changed in that way?

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:26 pm
In response to Siun @ 64

I fear that what set us back was the collective weight of the military-intelligence industrial complex, followed by 9-11. The only time we have ever really started to open up and roll back the extensive secrecy system was in the early mid-1970s, the last time Congress held major hearings into the CIA and other agencies, and that was in the wake of serious abuses at home. As long as people are fearful of terrorism, it will be very hard to get a serious conversation going here about abuse of power by our secret government.

kspopulist March 5th, 2011 at 3:29 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 63

thanx so much for coming and hosting!!!

An international approach is right but again so hard to implement, so far. Lack of transparency in ads, in the market in present-day capitalism, let alone politics is poisoning not just the brains, but the bodies as well as the air, water and soil. For money of course.

very interesting ideas, really like the idea of the ‘network weaver’ and see many folks here doing that. A big problem that has been around and you all mention is that of filters. So much in the world of social ideas and politics etc is so subjective — anybody can visit an art history seminar for that ha!

It certainly is possible to alert people an educate with the new technologies, yet we all know just because we may be informed that doesn’t mean people will or can act.

There is a drag on information providing and dissemination – for people to actually hear it and put it together – like withe economic collapse.
The drag extends because of the disinformation provided by the … disruptors who don’t want transparency. The collectors/ filters mentioned can help with this…

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:30 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 68

As I write in my book, we’re at a kind of “hinge moment.”

America’s leaders, some of them advocates for greater transparency in government at home and abroad, seem shocked that an outside force is doing to them what they have long called on democracy activists in other countries to do to their governments. Other political figures haven’t even tried to balance open government with their knee-jerk attacks on WikiLeaks and calls for Assange’s imprisonment or assassination. Dangerous legal precedents may soon be created that undermine the long-standing freedom of the press to report the truth.

American technology companies seem mostly cowed by the furious blasts emanating from Washington and uncertain of their own commitment to defend free speech online. While some tech visionaries are speaking out, others have been disturbingly quiet about the willingness of large chunks of their industry to cave in so quickly to political pressure. And American democracy activists seem divided between those who want to fight with extralegal methods like distributed-denial-of-service attacks to defend the wide-open web, those who fear engendering an anti-WikiLeaks backlash (or distrust Assange personally and fear being tied to his mast), and those like me who are resolutely anti-anti-WikiLeaks, and worry that the “cure” to WikiLeaks’ independence will be worse than the disease.

I do see a little bit of good news in how the government has not thrown the book at the many journalistic outlets that are publishing and commenting on the WikiLeaks revelations, but this is a silver lining given how hard they are pursuing Bradley Manning and presumably still WikiLeaks.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:30 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 67

Taking notes!

Are there other things like this we should do? (and do other folks here have similar suggestions?)

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 3:31 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 55

In the US, there are a couple of big priorities, especially in the wake of the Citizens United decision.

Got one A to a puzzle I’ve had for since that decision. My long-time contractor’s (historic house restoration, so always a project to be done over the 20+ years I’ve known him) wife is a school teacher. So he is paying close attention to event in WI. And in NYS & NYC, Cuomo & Bloomberg both want to fire teachers with seniority.

My Q has been, why the sudden acceleration of rightwing attacks on unions, public sector unions being pretty much the only ones left. The simple A is that after Citizens United, unions are the only organization that has the slightest chance of fighting back against corps. So it is imperative that corps get rid of public sector unions ASAP.

spocko March 5th, 2011 at 3:31 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 55

I think this is an important thing, trying to find out who is behind the money of citizens United. I’ll give you a problem. Personally I’ve been doing some investigative work on security policies and corporate funding from right wing groups. But when the second that I will get some traction with this, the groups that I’m exposing will go after me. (I speak from experience haven’t exposed the violent rhetoric on right wing radio which made me a target for ABC/Disney and talk radio hosts I got fired.)

I’m willing to do the work, but I know that the right will be quick with the taught, “Who is he? Why is he hiding in the shadows! What is his agenda! Who does he work for?”

Any advice?

kspopulist March 5th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

yeah, how can anyone triangulate away from revealing an IP?
I ask only half-joking
poligraft and opensecrets looks great!

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

The truth is that we ought to ask the folks at Sunlight Foundation to come here for a direct conversation, and maybe also a face-to-face meeting, to get and share ideas for improving how we can not only make sure vital public information about who is influencing our government is made more transparent, but also how we can better enable people to make sense of all that raw data. Investigative reporters like Marcy need to chime in here–what kinds of tools are helpful? If you’re not using a site like LittleSis.org (which calls itself the involuntary Facebook for the powerful), why not? What needs to be improved? A lot of critical information is sort of “hidden in plain view”–that is, we know a lot about the revolving door connections between lobbyists, contractors, and Congress, but often those connections aren’t made meaningful. Also, what do people think we should do next, once specific players are named?

A lot of the worse stuff in Washington happens because people there think no one is watching. We now have many more tools and much more data to work with, and we can also insure that bad actors stay accountable (Google doesn’t forget all that quickly). I suspect that the transparency movement may be edging towards a tipping point, where the cost of being secretive steadily keeps rising, and for a few (newer?) politicians a different decision is made, to be pro-actively open and transparent.

marymccurnin March 5th, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Two questions.

Anonymous has made statements that they are going after the DOD and people involved in Bradley Manning’s confinement – do you think this will help Manning or hurt his case?

And do you think that the information the Egyptians are uncovering will vindicate Assange?

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 3:40 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 71

I might also mention the collapse of U.S. civil society. In my own field, 97% of economists do not identify with the 3% neoliberals who determine policy of USG, IMF, WB. Krugman, one of the few kinda weak-kneed lefty public intellectuals, is too beholden to Bernanke, who hired him at Princeton, to have an objective view of what is really happening. AEA absolutely silent on econ policies that benefit the rich & only the rich.

Ditto ABA who are silent on lawlessness of USG. Ditto APsychs who dithered on torture.

So orgs that might otherwise have filled gaps have hidden under rocks with their hands over their ears singing LALALALA.

That puts the burden on those of us who still feel strongly about these issues to form whole new relationships that didn’t exist before. And that is not easy or cheap.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:40 pm
In response to spocko @ 74

Spocko–You may want to find a trusted collaborator to work with, rather than try to do this by yourself. There are plenty of solid investigative journalists who may be a little less vulnerable to the kind of pressure and backlash that you’re worrying about. I’ve heard of the work you’ve done on right wing talk radio and I know that can get hairy!

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:42 pm
In response to marymccurnin @ 77

I don’t know what Anonymous can possibly do to change the conditions of Manning’s confinement. The work that Jane has done with David House and others in raising questions and highlighting public attention is the most vital, in my mind.

As for Egypt vindicating Assange, I’m not sure I understand the question.

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 73

That’s exactly why the unions need to take a hard stand right now and fight back…! Here in Hawaii, probably the last bastion of Union might, the main Electric provider state-wide,HECO, their workers just suddenly struck yesterday afternoon, over wage negotiations, and, many mini-protests are happening here in Hilo town, a few examples; Walgreens is opening up soon, and, they refuse to pay ‘prevailing wages’, a newly built Mc.D’s is being protested because they’d shafted the builders and refuse to pay prevailing wage…!

marymccurnin March 5th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 80

Would all of the scandal and corruption coming to light in Egypt create more support for Assange?

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:47 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 76

Very interesting idea and one I’ll follow up.

The amount of information available is stunning – and we really do need to find better ways of making the connections and then making those available.

In my own writing and connections with others, for example, I’ve noticed how easily key facts slip by. For example, several years ago the ACLU did a great job of getting US DOD files on condolence payments to civilian victims in Iraq – the files told a very important tale of individuals but also pointed to the broader problem (if you divided the budget for such payments by the average payment – $2,500 for a dead wife, husband or child – you could see the scope of the killings) but this got only minimal MSM attention and quickly slipped folks’ awareness. Recently in a discussion amongst activists, someone asked about condolence payments and it was clear many had no idea those files were even available – we need better tools!

spocko March 5th, 2011 at 3:49 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 76

I think that it needs more than just exposing the connections, with lobbying it seems to me, and many, that it’s just legal bribery and there is nothing we can do about it.

I want to find out stuff the are doing where exposing them subjects them to financial liability or criminal prosecution.

By the way, the comment about connecting the names of congress people to their profile on OpenCongress.org is a great idea. We need to understand SEO and use it effectively. The good news is that the “organic” results on Google is constantly looking for authentic links (real people writing real stuff) and is constantly being tweaked to push out link farm and paid placement crap. If we harness real content with some direction we can help influence page rank on Google and other services.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Since we are heading towards the end of our time, I want to make a real push for folks to buy Micah’s book – and to share it around, give a copy to your local library and to friends and contacts. It’s a good read and gives a genuinely accessible introduction to these issues – and inspires folks to do more.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:52 pm
In response to marymccurnin @ 82

In places where people are already inclined to support Assange, yes. But he’s a complicated character. On the one hand, he has been incredibly courageous in building WikiLeaks and in pushing out the disclosures of the last year. But I think he should have stepped aside and allowed others to run things while dealing with his personal legal problems. And I also think more people might be inclined to trust him if WikiLeaks had a more transparent administration than it has had, both with money and in how it makes key decisions.

Personally, I think we need to keep our eye on the larger issue, which is how to generate more support for opening up governments and powerful institutions to more transparency and accountability. Assange and WikiLeaks are part of that story but not the whole story.

BevW March 5th, 2011 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon,

Micah, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and transparency.

Siun, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Micah’s websites: Personal Democracy Forum, and TechPresident

Book – Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency

Siun’s website

Thanks all,
Have a great evening!

kspopulist March 5th, 2011 at 3:55 pm

is there somewhere else to buy your book besides amazon?
ok, I see

BevW March 5th, 2011 at 3:56 pm
In response to kspopulist @ 88

the Publisher – OR Books

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Great point Micah:

Personally, I think we need to keep our eye on the larger issue, which is how to generate more support for opening up governments and powerful institutions to more transparency and accountability. Assange and WikiLeaks are part of that story but not the whole story.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:57 pm
In response to Siun @ 85

Thanks. I really wrote it to be a kind of primer for people who might be somewhat new to the transparency movement. WikiLeaks as the gateway drug, if you will. It’s good that a lot of people have gotten fired up by WikiLeaks and all the controversy it’s kicked up, but how do we go from a highly secretive and controlling system to one where being open is the default setting? That’s where we have to tie transparency back into making people’s lives better. There’s no question that we need to expose the awful collusion that keeps taking place between powerful governments (including ours), greedy corporations, autocratic regimes, etc. But for transparency to really stick, we also need to show to people how in the most commonplace ways it can make life better, healthier, safer, save money, cut waste, etc.

I touch on this idea a little in the book, that we have an opportunity to build a new paradigm for a kind of “we-government.” Not e-govt, which is where the government uses technology to share information top-down. But co-creating better government, in many cases by people using public data and their own initiative to make our cities and towns work better. Not big government, not small government, but effective do-it-ourselves government.

That’s a paradigm waiting for some real networking weaving leadership to spread it…

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to kspopulist @ 88

Yeah, you can buy it direct from my publisher ORBooks at http://www.orbooks.com.

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Mahalo Nui Loa, Micah, Siun, and, Bev…! Another awesome Book Salon…! *g*

Please don’t be a stranger, Micah…! ;-)

spocko March 5th, 2011 at 3:59 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 79

This is actually my plan. I also like to work with groups like EFF since I’m often pushing the envelop in an area they work in. Right now I’m working with Free Press on FCC and FTC violations of several talk radio hosts in both FCC sponsorship identification violation and FTC endorsement guidelines violations. These are both areas were if we can prove violations we can nail them with fines. And if we can’t get them on fines we can prove to one group of advertisers that the radio hosts are taking money from another group of advertisers with out disclosing it. That is the kind of thing that pisses off advertisers, and I’m always for getting advertisers pissed off at right wing talk radio.

Micah Sifry March 5th, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Thanks everyone for your great questions and comments! I promise not to be a stranger. Also, y’all come visit at techPresident.com. And follow me on Twitter at @mlsif.

Siun March 5th, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Thank you so much Micah – for the book, your work and this conversation. I am sure it will inspire more ideas and actions towards that “we-government”!

Bev, thanks once again for introducing me – and our Book Salon – to such a valuable new book.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 4:00 pm
In response to spocko @ 84

The depth of the deceptions of the USG have had a powerful influence as well. I’ve had several in-depth conversations in the last 6 months with small groups of people (picnics, dinner parties, etc) who would self-identify as very progressive. However, they don’t spend the time that I do on the issues and the power structure. These occasions have been jawdropping for them, and they have refused to take in the evidence I’ve advanced. I get return comments like: You must be so depressed. Or: Don’t be too hard on Obama. Instead of: How do you know (I’d be happy to A such a Q), or Wow, where can I learn more, or even simply, Geez, I had no idea.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 4:03 pm
In response to Micah Sifry @ 91

Heh. One of my last reports on Wall St (“There’s Nothing New About the New Economy, summer 1999) hypothesized that the new tech (top of the dot-com bubble) might allow for a more horizontal and efficient corp. How naive I was!!!

CTuttle March 5th, 2011 at 4:09 pm
In response to Siun @ 96

Siun, is there a chance you could host Omar Barghouti…? *g*

spocko March 5th, 2011 at 4:11 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 97

I hear you. I was at a party talking about some some of the things I recently found out and there were like, “Wow, that’s depressing. Who do you like for Best Picture?”

But I get that I need to be “entertaining” with my info too, so I incorporate pop culture in my work to make it more palatable. But I still do the work.

eCAHNomics March 5th, 2011 at 4:19 pm
In response to spocko @ 101

I know nothing about pop culture or sports, so can’t make my points in a way that is easier for the listeners to hear.

My “audience” (refer to them that way only bc I knew so much more than they & therefore dominated the conversation) were receptive to hearing what I said, in the sense of listening with interest. As I mentioned, they would self-identify as progressive. They just couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the USG had gone so much farther to the dark side than they ever knew. Esp under Obama. They were still in the hopey-changey world. HCR was just his first step & he would do more when he could, for example. They could not bring themselves to believe that O would ever do a HCR that was just a ploy to force 30 million more dupes to pay med ins corps that would not pay for med services when they were needed.

I had no idea you had done the kind of work you describe. Blessings on you.

cronewit March 5th, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Sharing FDL’s info-analysis models — YES PLEASE, with good instructions and open-source free software that can be used by people with old computers (like XP on dialup)

cronewit March 5th, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Always linking to OpenCongress.org when mentioning Congresspeople’s names — a great idea! I’ll share that at dKos, and credit you, Micah, saying I read you at FDL. Thanks!

kspopulist March 5th, 2011 at 6:19 pm
In response to cronewit @ 103

thanx for the reminder cronewit!

what do people think of some sort of wiki-crunch … incorporating ideas such as newslinks, with sources as well as their supporters, and analysis where transparency and clarity are the hallmarks not what merely the msm sponsors will want or will allow,;where info like Siun’s new article on the Egyptian opening of records today can be analyzed and linked by topic and I’ll say today ‘range of effect’; where disinformation can be debumnked specifically and turned around and brought into the light etc.

I can’t help but think that a model like this would be helpful to all, even if for some it might remain a ‘consumer reports’ sort of thing for the internet age for debunking false advertisement type things in the market, it can still grow in other areas

open source filters for the age of information, but not just adbusters for the inernet, ‘narrative busters’

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