DAVOS, Switzerland – What are the lessons of WikiLeaks? The secret-spilling site has been the subject of debate at the World Economic Forum, and one respected historian on Wednesday urged businesses and governments to think hard about what information really needs to be protected, and then protect it better.
"I do not believe that the online world ... means that there can be no secrecy and everyone will know everything about everyone," said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European Studies at Oxford University.
However, he added, "it makes much more information easily available. Every organization should think very hard about what it is you really need to protect. You're probably protecting a whole lot you don't need to. And then do everything you can to protect that smaller amount."
Garton Ash took part in the deliberations over what to publish at Britain's Guardian newspaper, one of several papers around the world that went through the recent WikiLeaks cables and applied journalistic criteria to what should appear.
He spoke at a closed session at the World Economic Forum where participants wrestled with the thorny questions surfaced by the explosion of online information and the WikiLeaks phenomenon in particular: What about covert operations? Or delicate diplomatic maneuverings which if exposed midway could fall apart, costing lives and treasure?
During various conversations at the conference, which opened Wednesday, some delegates felt maximal exposure was needed by people who often do not trust their governments. Some argued that even businesses might benefit from maximal transparency, sacrificing the possible competitive advantage of secret research to a sort of crowd-sourcing method of research and development. Others argued that diplomacy does need a veil of secrecy to do good works.
WikiLeaks, in recent weeks, has published 2,658 U.S. diplomatic cables to its website — just over 1 percent of the 251,287 State Department cables it claims to have in reserve.
In an AP interview this week, its founder Julian Assange said that along with the Guardian, the New York Times, Spain's El Pais, France's Le Monde and Germany's Der Spiegel have yet to go through all of the cables, although he didn't say how many of the files remained unread. He said he hopes to enlist as many as 60 news organizations from around the world in a bid to help speed the publication of its massive trove of secret U.S. diplomatic memos.
WikiLeaks has been accused by senior U.S. officials of reckless disregard in the way it publishes documents, but Assange said — with a few exceptions — he was so far satisfied with the process.
Garton Ash said WikiLeaks presented the world with a classic trade-off — in this case between the values of transparency and privacy.
"Clearly there is a public interest in the confidential conduct of diplomacy, of public business, indeed of business altogether, not to mention private life. There's also a public interest in knowing what is being done in our name. These conflict, and you have to strike a balance. its classically done by the separation of powers between a responsible free press and government."
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former spokesman for WikiLeaks who has fallen out with Assange, told a closed forum that the group concluded that transparency had to be enforced — that the topdown approach of government decided what should be secret was not working.
In an interview with AP, he agreed that the question of what to publish straddled a very fine line.
"What do you do about subjective interpretations? You cannot avoid that. It depends on thorough work. It's very helpful the more primary source documents you can put out with a story."
He said he concluded several months ago that WikiLeaks was too ambitious and wanted to do much itself — despite its recent partnering with media organizations.
"It's trying to be the mechanism to receive documents (and) to publish the documents. It's too much responsibility and too much power." He added that one of his areas of disagreement with Assange was his conviction that the best thing was to provide documents to news agencies and not individual newspapers.
Domscheit-Berg said he plans to launch a new operation to be called OpenLeaks that takes the idea of partnering with media further and merely provides technology to these organizations to receive documents anonymously.
"It's way better if established organizations that have good mechanism that have experience, that have good structures for making that distinction between what shouldn't be public and what should be public — that these organizations receive such documents."
"Everyone should be in the position to receive documents from anonymous sources in the way I can e-mail them in a brown envelope. Everyone should receive them by e-mail because we are going toward a digital age."