Disclosure’s Effects: Wikileaks and Transparency
58 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2011 Last revised: 15 Sep 2015
Date Written: July 28, 2011
Constitutional, criminal, and administrative laws regulating government transparency, and the theories that support them, rest on the assumption that the disclosure of information has transformative effects: disclosure can inform, enlighten, and energize the public, or it can create great harm or stymie government operations. To resolve disputes over difficult cases, transparency laws and theories typically balance disclosure’s beneficial effects against its harmful ones. WikiLeaks and its vigilante approach to massive document leaks challenge the underlying assumption about disclosure’s effects in two ways. First, WikiLeaks’s ability to receive and distribute leaked information cheaply, quickly, and seemingly unstoppably enables it to bypass the legal framework that would otherwise allow courts and officials to consider and balance disclosures’ effects. For this reason, WikiLeaks threatens to make transparency’s balance irrelevant. Second, its recent massive disclosures of U.S. military and diplomatic documents allow us to reconsider and test the assumption that disclosure produces effects that can serve as the basis for judicial and administrative prediction, calculation, and balancing. For this reason, WikiLeaks threatens transparency’s balance by disproving its assumption that disclosure necessarily has predictable, identifiable consequences that can be estimated ex ante or even ex post.
This article studies WikiLeaks in order to question and evaluate prevailing laws and theories of transparency that build on the assumption that disclosure’s effects are predictable, calculable, and capable of serving as the basis for adjudicating difficult cases. Tracing WikiLeaks’s development, operations, theories, and effects, it demonstrates the incoherence and conceptual poverty of an effects model for evaluating and understanding transparency.
Keywords: transparency, open government, classified information, government information, WikiLeaks, Espionage Act, First Amendment, Freedom of Information Act, FOIA
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