Killing Conspiracy: WikiLeaks and GRAMA


Over the last decade, I've lived my life more publicly than I did before thanks to the rise of technologies like blogging and Twitter. Many of my friends don't understand the level of information I'm willing to just put out for the world to see or what motivates it. The primary motivation--at least the primary reward--has been a life that is richer and more fun because of the connections I've made, the discussions that have ensued, and the friends I have who I'd have never known without blogging and Twitter.

That said, like most people, I chose what to make public and there are certainly things I don't blog about or even post on Twitter. Some of those are simply because I don't think about it or don't have the time. But there are times when I don't post something because it would betray a confidence, spoil a negotiation, or--I'll admit it--not portray me in a light I'd enjoy.

I've contemplated what it would be like to live my life completely in public. For example would I be willing to open up my email to public scrutiny. Could I make everything public? The answer is that I could, but it would change what I put in email. When you expose something to public view, you necessarily change the nature of the conversation. I'd undoubtedly come up with other channels to carry out those conversations. Expose them then! The conversations shifts again.

The issue of government transparency and open government has been much on my mind lately. First, like many, I've been fascinated with the WikiLeaks discussions. Secondly, I've been closely following the GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) controversy in Utah--and now I'm involved.

WikiLeaks is instructive about GRAMA in ways you might not expect. In State and Terrorist Conspiracies (PDF), Assange writes:

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?...We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnaping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to.

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Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).

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Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer's aphorism is sometimes called "the Fox News effect".

You might be thinking "yeah! That's what we want to do! Use openness to eliminate conspiracies between legislators in Utah!" And of course, we do, in the traditional way that the word "conspiracy" is used. But if you read Assange carefully, he considers all government--not just bad government--but all government a conspiracy. Assange is an anarchist. And he believes that the way to anarchy is exposing the secrets of government.

I don't think most of the people pushing for open government in Utah are anarchists. They do in fact, want government to work and work well. They simply want to create better government with transparency. What makes this difficult is that too much transparency may be as bad as too little.

Negotiations cannot be done in public and politics is largely a negotiation. Compromise requires the ability for people to talk without fear of exposure when negotiations fall through. The end might justify the compromise, if it's reached, but if it fails, the talks might be politically damaging. Exchanging support on bills by legislators might require finesse and taking uncomfortable positions. Even threats are often part of a negotiation.

I believe in the Sunlight Foundation's Principles for Transparency in Government (a larger list of ten principles is also available):

  • Transparency is Government's Responsibility: Transparency must first and foremost be understood as government's responsibility, since public demand and private/non-profit responses can reach only so far. Accordingly, both Congress and the branch must make broad changes in our federal information and technology policies to establish on-line, on-time public access as a priority for virtually all the operations of the federal government.
  • Public Equals Online: Whatever information the government has or commits to making public, the standard for "public" should include "freely accessible online." Information cannot be considered public if it is available only inside a government building, during limited hours or for a fee. In the 21st century, information is properly described as "public" only if it is available online, 24/7, for free, in some kind of reasonably parse-able format. Almost all of our public sphere is now online, and our public information should be there, too.
  • Data Quality and Presentation Matter: The Internet has redefined effective communications and publishing. It is a 24/7 open medium, in which now-standard practices include continuous, contemporaneous dissemination, permanent searchability and re-usability, among other key features. The government must adopt the principles that all information and data that the government has decided or hereafter decides should be public must be (i) posted online promptly, (ii) complete and accurate, (iii) searchable and manipulable and (iv) permanently preserved and accessible. Among these four, timeliness is particularly vital for information concerning any ongoing decision making process, such as legislation or regulation. Disclosure should move at the same pace as influence over such decisions; thus arbitrary periodic filing requirements (e.g., annual, quarterly or monthly) violate this standard and render postings less useful to facilitate trust and participation. Fortunately, the Internet enables inexpensive real-time publishing, such as real-time updates we have come to expect for news and stock market transactions. These standards of contemporaneous disclosure are particularly important when it comes to disclosure of lobbying contacts, consideration of legislation, promulgation of regulations or awarding of grants and contracts.

The problem is that this says how to make something public not what should be public. There's nothing here to help us tease apart the sticky problem of where or how we should draw the line between information that should be public because such exposure is in the public interest and information that should be kept secret because we recognize that the public's interest is served by a legislative process that supports private--even secret--negotiations and settlements.

I believe that separate channels is not an answer. As long as there is any channel that is not open to scrutiny, (i) conversations that people feel the need to protect (for what ever reason) will move there and (ii) those are precisely the places that the press and public will want to scrutinize. The others will be bland and uninteresting. If the GRAMA Working Group goes to a separate channel solution, then we've punted and not dealt with the real issue.

I do not have an answer. I think that like many things in life, this is one of those areas with no clear boundaries. We will need to decide what we value more. Are we willing to risk killing important compromises and deals in hopes of ferreting out all conspiracy? If Assange is correct, are we willing to risk destroying the ability of government ot act? Or are we willing to leave some places where conspiracy can hide in order to protect the legitimate uses of secret and private interactions? This is the real question before the GRAMA WG and we must deal with it.