Freedom of information has always been a fundamental element of hacker culture. When Wikileaks released 91,000 reports to the public, the simple but radical idea of free access to all information reached the top of the world's most powerful institution: the government of the united states of america.
"If you don't have access to the information you need to improve things, how can you fix them? A free exchange of information particularly when the information was in the form of a computer program, allowed for greater overall creativity. [...] In the hacker viewpoint, any system could benefit from that easy flow of information."
Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy, 1984
The early hacker ethics understood the free flow of information as part of the computer, its applications and the related source code. The first step away from the computer, came with the transformation of "the freedom of sharing" into the GNU General Public Licenses, GPL. This was the legal basis needed to support the free flow of information and to keep this information available to the public.
The release of the GPL in 1989 further spread the idea of collaborations on applications. Its protective aspects led to the massive success of free and open software development.
"What is now called "open source" goes back as far as the hacker community does, but until 1985 it was an unnamed folk practice rather than a conscious movement with theories and manifestos attached to it. This prehistory ended when, in 1985, arch-hacker Richard Stallman ("RMS") tried to give it a name "free software".
In march 1995 ward cunningham helped push access to information over two barriers. The first was the public wikiwikiweb which extended the idea of 'open source' to any plain (English) text. He also opened the doors to allow collaboration over a simple web interface.
"The beauty of Wiki is in the freedom, simplicity, and power it offers."
The next major transformation came with "open publishing" and the birth of indymedia in November 1999.
"Software is information. So are news stories. So are opinion pieces. They can be easily copied and shared. Maybe information wants to be free?"
"Open publishing is the same as free software", Matthew Arnison, March 2001
Freedom of Information and horizontal collaboration always had a strong dynamic. It was the radical left, with their long history of grassroots organization and horizontal processes, that could adopt the idea of free software.
In 2001 this horizontal collaboration became the basis for a free and open encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
From there the ball was rolling and the commercial world took over the idea of "open publishing". It was now called "user generated content" and Flickr, YouTube and Twitter led the way.
Indymedia understood its role as an alternative platform to the cooperate mass media networks. It changed the perception of events and demonstrations, and often encouraged the user to question the official mass media version of events. However, it was never able to attack or directly change any commercial mass media institution to any major extent. The impact, or influence of indymedia lays much more in the alternatives, in providing an anonymous platform for reports and articles. The major impact was the transformation of the idea "freedom-of-information" into another real world use case.
As easy as it is to publish any information on the internet today, there are only very few platforms that remain who provide anonymous publishing. It is the will to protect the original publisher to some extent.
With the start of Wikileaks in January 2007 another platform came up with the clear goal to protect the sources. It radicalized the idea of the freedom of information and asked for any "classified, censored or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic or ethical significance" (source).
For the release of the Afghan War Diaries, Wikileaks asked three major newspapers to help with the verification and analysis of the large set of material.
"What we're seeing in the complex dance between Wikileaks and the more traditional media is a dance between two informational cultures, one of hackers and one of reporters. Both cultures appear to need the other -- The New York Times needs Wikileaks, and Wikileaks, it seems, needs the The New York Times. Wikileaks seems to have figured this out, and that's what makes it so powerful."
What's The Appeal Of Wikileaks?, C.W. Anderson, July 26, 2010
As much as wikileaks tries to gain the maximum impact for what they release and how powerful that information itself is, the actual change in the established institutions may never happen, so long as the television is the centralized conduit of mass media.
It will need a (new) decentralized and personal broadcast medium to create a dynamic public sphere to allow the horizontal sharing of information. A device that is way more affordable and accessible then the internet today.
Investigative journalism has suffered a great deal and wikileaks is trying to fill a gap. But it also functions as inspiration; it is giving real world examples of the possibilities of freedom of information.
The transformation of the freedom-of-information into any real world use-case, is the major momentum to cause change. It is the existence of powerful alternatives.
Le Monde Diplomatique / Christian Christensen
The idea that mere access to raw information de facto leads to change (radical or otherwise) is as romantic as the notion that mere access to technology can do the same. Information, just as technology, is only useful if the knowledge and skills required to activate such information are present. Wikileaks chose its three newspapers not because they necessarily represented ideological kindred spirits for Julian Assange and his colleagues, but because they were professionally, organisationally and economically prepared for the job of decoding and distributing the material provided.
In a digital world that is constantly being redefined as non-hierarchical, borderless and fluid, Wikileaks has reminded us that structure, boundaries, laws and reputation still matter.
In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve.
But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.
"Everything is different now. Everything feels more authentic. We can choose to embrace this authenticity, and use it to construct a new system of relations, one which does not rely on secrets and lies. A week ago that would have sounded utopian, now it’s just facing facts. I’m hopeful. For the first time in my life I see the possibility for change on a scale beyond the personal. Assange has brought out the radical hiding inside me, the one always afraid to show his face. I think I’m not alone."