Earlier, we wrote about the Pentagon's ridiculous and counterproductive attacks on Wikileaks
, noting that it was the exact wrong approach to take. In writing that, I probably should have made the connection to some other, similarly short-sighted "attacks" on something one legacy group felt was a threat, but which actually was probably an opportunity -- and in attacking it, that legacy group only served to (1) draw more attention to it and (2) create even more, harder to work with, clones. I'm talking, of course, about the RIAA and its reaction to Napster.
While I didn't think of it, Raffi Khatchadourian did, and wrote a brilliant blog post for the New Yorker making the comparison
(that's why he writes for The New Yorker, and I do not). Khatchadourian is actually responding to the equally ridiculous suggestion from former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, that the US should use the military to hunt Julian Assange down
and bring him to justice and shut down Wikileaks, which Thiessen calls a "criminal syndicate" (say what?!?). Khatchadourian makes the connection:
Thiessen's argument calls to mind the music industry's effort to shut down Napster--a Web site where recorded music could be traded and downloaded without regard to copyright--in the nineteen-nineties, in that it loses sight of the broader technological and cultural revolution that the Internet has brought to the exchange of information. In 2001, after a lengthy legal battle, the Recording Industry Association of America succeeded in forcing Napster offline, only to watch Napster's services move to a number of other Web sites that were structured in a more decentralized way (pdf)--making the piracy of music even more diffuse and difficult to prosecute. Only recently has the industry grudgingly been adapting to file-sharing rather than fruitlessly seeking to eliminate it, and one can now find music executives who even speak of Napster as a lost opportunity for their industry.
Shutting WikiLeaks down--assuming that this is even possible--would only lead to copycat sites devised by innovators who would make their services even more difficult to curtail. A better approach for the Defense Department might be to consider WikiLeaks a competitor rather than a threat, and to recognize that the spirit of transparency that motivates Assange and his volunteers is shared by a far wider community of people who use the Internet.
Indeed. This is the same thing we've pointed out that the RIAA did with Napster -- losing a huge opportunity and instead driving such efforts totally underground
. We've also chided the RIAA and others in the past for not recognizing that file sharing was "competition," and responding appropriately -- and it's a good point with Wikileaks and the Pentagon, even if it might not seem obvious at first. Khatchadourian points out that the analogy works when you realize that the "equivalent" to Wikileaks for the Pentagon is the Freedom of Information Act and the Mandatory Declassification Review -- but both are "slow and inconsistent." Wikileaks, on the other hand is much more efficient (just like Napster vs. the RIAA). He then notes how much of the attention Wikileaks has garnered could have been avoided if the Pentagon had actually embraced transparency and more efficiency:
It's worth recalling the first WikiLeaks project to garner major international attention: a video, shot from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in Iraq, that documented American soldiers killing up to eighteen people. For years, Reuters sought to obtain that video through FOIA because two of its staff members were among the victims. Had the military released this footage to the wire service, and made whatever minor redactions were necessary to protect its operations, there would never have been a film titled "Collateral Murder"--the name of WikiLeaks's package for the video--because there would have been nothing to leak. Even after Assange had published the footage, and even though the events documented in it had been previously revealed in detail by a Washington Post reporter, the military (at least, as of July) has still not officially released it.
In other words, the way to deal with such a competitor is to out innovate them
. That certainly sounds familiar.
There's a reason Wikileaks exists, and it's not because it's a criminal syndicate, but because the folks behind it believe that there are serious problems in the way certain types of secrets are used to abuse power. So it represents a more efficient (if blunt) way of solving that. The same is true of the RIAA and Napster (and its descendants). The folks behind file sharing programs felt there were serious problems and inefficiencies with how industry gatekeepers used their gatekeeper role for abuse
, rather than in the best interests of the market.
It won't happen (it never does), but Khatchadourian is spot on in noting that the Pentagon really should be recognizing that it's traveling down the same mistaken path as the RIAA, rather than just copying the same types of moves.