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Wikileaks' OGov Lessons

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By Dawn Lim September 27, 2010

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What the ongoing furor over the Wikileaks phenomenon has revealed, writes Peter Ludlow, author of Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias, "is that the media and government agencies believe there is a single protagonist to be concerned with -- something of a James Bond villain, if you will."

The affinity to put all responsibility on a point person -- whether it is Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, or whistleblowers like Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning -- is a natural reaction within the federal government, whose own movement towards transparency has proved a top-down directive. But while the General Service Administration, under the orders of the White House, has had to deal with the task of powering the "Open Government Directive,"

Wikileaks is not the one-off creation of a solitary genius; it is the product of decades of collaborative work by people engaged in applying computer hacking to political causes, in particular, to the principle that information-hoarding is evil -- and, as Stewart Brand said in 1984, "Information wants to be free."

While agencies have had to be instructed, audited and for some, shamed into compliance, there is no central protagonist behind the Wikileaks, "an informal network of revolutionary individuals bound by a shared ethic and culture," argues Ludlow.

It's widely rumored that if Assange were to be detained or decimated -- a threat that is becoming more real after he was suspected of rape -- a password to all of the whistleblower website's encrypted files would be released to the public. On the other hand, if the administration changed hands, there's a very real chance that the open government movement might lose momentum.

The movement may have engaged advocates, developers, academics, companies, but it's not met its grandiose vision of empowering the public. USAspending.gov, after three redesigns, is "pretty impressive looking, but its data is almost completely useless," Ellen Miller, Sunlight Foundation's co-founder said at Gov 2.0 Summit. If open government continues to take place within a blackbox, Wikileaks will have to increasingly take on the mantle of disclosure and transparency.

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