Gustavo Ballvé on September 5th, 2011
Corporate Governance, Food for thought, Home, Investment Themes, Mental models, Portfolio Management, Quotes

We’ve posted last Friday about the very interesting InfoTrends conference, roughly about the state of Brazilian social media. We continue the topic today with notes from Day One (yes, we’ve inverted the usual order), including the videoconference talk by Wikileaks’ Julian Assange (Part 1 is just for his talk). While his speeches are usually quite radical, so is the notion that transparency can change the worlds governance systems for the best – and Wikileaks (along with its offspring organizations) is the most interesting experiment in this realm.

Julian Assange – founder, Wikileaks

– Brazilians are the largest supporters of Wikileaks in number (not $$). That was surprising.

– Whatever your degree of belief in their message, it isn’t hard to figure out that while most of the Western world is supposed to be under the rule of law, in certain instances these “checks and balances” in the system can fail. The only way to combat these flaws is through transparency.

– In their efforts to spread the information it gathers, obviously the Internet is paramount – but without mainstream media coverage Wikileaks has no support and the message doesn’t reach its potential audience. So while there’s constant tension between Wikileaks’ traditional media and its incentive/ownership structures, they need it more than the main media need them. Even so, he mentioned a 2008 lawsuit initiated by Swiss wealth manager Julius Baer after a damaging leak, and Wikileaks only survived it financially because CBS News, the New York Times and 23 other organizations and universities sent or offered to send their own lawyers to Wikileaks’ rescue. Eventually, they won.

– Very interestingly, he says that before the people’s right to know something comes the rights of the whistleblowers and sources. If you think about it, that’s key to their “business model”: if you don’t protect your sources, and in some cases “hiding their identities” means literally “ensuring their survival”, no source will ever come to you twice and new sources won’t do it either.

– He says that the supply of information is not the problem: they’re getting a lot of good material. The challenge is to publish relentlessly and “never un-publish”, that is, never back down despite the pressures. And never fail in terms of infrastructure either (again, it has to be reasonably sure it can publish and sustain something “on air” so that sources remain motivated).

– Thought-provoking: “never be frightened of statements by society or governments without testing them. Always advance, move forward. All it takes to keep people down is fear: true power is not necessary to intimidate a society. But if you keep at it and reveal their governments’ weakness, people start to believe. That’s why most revolutions start in public squares: seeing like-minded people angry or ready to act is empowering and goes against what they might have read or heard from official sources”.

– Another interesting “business model” issue: there’s a certain level of “churn” with their partners. He says some partners are “compromised” but others are “contaminated”, that is, they lose the incentives to collaborate with Wikileaks.

– Censorship in the West differs from the “cartoonish” (his words) definition of police invading newsrooms. The idea is to “drown out the truth with lies, repeating them over and over until it’s relatively impossible for common citizens to discern signal from noise.

– Thought-provoking again: “Governments don’t have rights, they have responsibilities. The most important of them is the responsibility to ensure the rights of individuals. Sometimes governments feel that some censorship, or the censorship of certain issues, actually is a way to ensure these rights. Wikileaks is not against secrecy, in fact it depends on secrecy to protect its sources and itself, and it recognizes the need some agencies feel to hold some things back. Individuals, however, shouldn’t care and shouldn’t be blocked from anything if they choose to know it.”

– Finally, when asked how do they tell truth from lies in Wikipedia, Mr. Assange had an answer that Richard Feynman would be proud of: “We have to go back to one word: Epistemology. How do we know what we know. I’ve studied this field a lot. The basic idea is that we cannot know what is TRUE, but we may figure out what is NOT true. So with sufficient lies or false statements, what is left has some probability of being true. Therefore exposing lies and false statements is VITAL.”

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