What Edward Snowden Has Given Us

from the age-of-the-whistleblower dept

When Edward Snowden first revealed himself as the source of the NSA leaks, the Guardian released a short video interview with him in which he made the following confession:

"The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests."
Less than a week later, Glenn Greenwald was asserting that Snowden's worst fear had not been realized. That same claim was made somewhat more plausibly a few days ago by Philip Bump, writing in The Atlantic under the headline "Edward Snowden is Winning." Even if you don't agree with that optimistic assessment, the narrowness of the defeat of the Amash Amendment shows how far things have come in a few weeks.

But just as interesting as the fact that the debate is taking place, exactly as Snowden hoped, are the collateral benefits that are flowing from his leaks. Jay Rosen has gathered together a number of examples, part of what he calls The Snowden Effect:

Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden's leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.
An interesting post by danah boyd suggests that there may be another important knock-on effect from Snowden's actions:
He's creating a template for how to share information. He's clearly learned from previous whistleblowers and is using many of their tactics. But he's also forged his own path which has had its own follies. Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails in getting asylum somewhere, he's inspired others to think about how they can serve as a check to power. And this is terrifying for any government.

Ironically, the government's efforts to deter future whistleblowers by being tough on Snowden is most likely to backfire. This kind of zero-tolerance approach assumes that those who are engaging in whistleblowing are operating under the same logic, priorities, and values as government actors. Sure, plenty of people don't come forward because they're too scared; that's not new. But because of how the government responded to Snowden, those who are willing to take on the big fight now have a model for how to do it, how to iterate based on what they learned watching Snowden. The US government, far from deterring future whistleblowers, has just incentivized a new generation of them by acting like a megalomaniac.
If, as boyd suggests, a new generation of government whistleblowers come forward to carry on the work Snowden began, that would be an even better result for him than simply leading to a few immediate changes, since it would offer the hope that those might be both durable and continuing.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: discussion, ed snowden, leaks, nsa, nsa surveillance, public debate, the snowden effect


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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 26 Jul 2013 @ 10:16am

    Re: "Edward Snowden is Winning"

    Public does not care, congress does not agree with you


    [citation needed]

    And you claim a victory ?


    Nobody claimed a victory. "Is winning" means "on the way to victory", not "victory has been achieved".

    From my perspective, Snowden is winning. His stated goals have been partially accomplished, and there is no sign that the trend will change anytime soon.

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