Saturday, December 11, 2010

Julian Assange's Political Philosophy: An Analysis

So in spite of my alleged blogging hiatus I decided to write a post.

Like most people, I have been following the recent WikiLeaks-saga with some interest. I have not been following it particularly closely, and am not particularly well-informed -- beyond media summaries -- of the content and significance of the recently-leaked documents. Nonetheless, I am interested in the affair and in the arguments for and against such leaks.

The other day on Leiter Reports a link was provided to an essay by Peter Ludlow summarising the political philosophy of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

In this blog post, I propose to analyse Assange's philosophy as it is presented in Ludlow's essay. This means I am not analysing the primary source material (i.e. Assange's own writings) and so may be doing some injustice to his actual views. Life is short and reading through all that material would be far too time-consuming [edit: I was wrong about this, see comments], so I'm hoping Ludlow's summary is fair.

Ludlow identifies three main components to Assange's philosophy: (i) his idiosyncratic definition of conspiracies; (ii) his belief that conspiracies are bad; and (iii) his proposed solution to the problem of conspiracies (i.e. WikiLeaks itself). I will look at each of these components in turn, identifying the main arguments and counterarguments at each stage.

I warn the reader in advance that this is going to be a somewhat laborious enterprise. It will feature several formal arguments and argument-diagrams. I happen to like that kind of thing because it helps to clarify the structure of the views being considered. But I acknowledge that it might prove tedious for some. There will be no vitriol or polemic in this post: I do not think Assange is public enemy number one, but nor am I convinced that he is the saviour of democratic society. My thinking on the matter is conflicted and this analysis reveals some of the reasons for the conflict.

1. Assange's Definition of Conspiracies
Traditionally, a conspiracy is defined as a secret plan by group to do something unlawful or harmful. As such, it involves the concealed but conscious coordination of activities in the service of some nefarious purpose. The phrase "conscious coordination" is usually thought key to this traditional definition. But Assange has a very different take on the nature of conspiracy.

Assange's definition of conspiracy is derived from the concept of an information network. An information network is a collection nodes between which information is communicated. Assange himself provides a useful analogy to explain the idea. He asks us to imagine a board with a set of nails hammered into it at random locations. These nails represent the nodes. Now imagine twine or string connecting the nails to one another. These connections represent the communication of information through the network.

The connections between nodes can be somewhat haphazard, i.e. one node may be connected to several different nodes while another is only connected to one or two nodes. The connections can also come in different strengths or weights indicating that larger volumes of information are being passed between certain nodes. Society as a whole can be viewed as a large information network (or collection of networks) in which individuals are the nodes.

An information network is depicted schematically in the diagram below.

Assange defines a conspiracy as an information network that is sealed-off from other information networks. In other words, as a network in which information is passed between the nodes in the network but not to the outside. To give this some meaning, imagine the information network depicted above (call it CN) is embedded in a much large collection of information networks. You can think of this larger collection being civil society as a whole (CS). CN is a conspiracy if it does not pass information to CS.

A conspiratorial information network is represented below.

Information does not pass outside the network

So for Assange, a conspiracy is just an emergent property of a particular type of information network. There are two important implications to be drawn from this definition.

First, a conspiracy need not involve conscious coordination or planning directed toward some nefarious end. The conspirators (i.e. the nodes/people) need not know anything about the larger (emergent) significance of the network. That said, the conspirators will likely demand secrecy and trust in their internal communications.

Second, networks like this share some of the properties of living organisms. In particular, they can be seen to maintain a kind of internal, homeostatic equilibrium and to rebuild or sustain themselves when some of their nodes are damaged. This is property becomes more pronounced the more powerful the network is (as in governmental or large corporate networks).

For the sake of argument we can grant Assange this definition of conspiracies.

2. Are Conspiracies Bad?
The traditional definition of conspiracies is a value-laden one: it defines them as being directed toward some nefarious purpose. Assange's definition does not carry these value-laden implications: a conspiracy is now simply seen as a particular type of information network. Nevertheless, Assange seems to think conspiracies are (necessarily?) bad. Why so?

The Argument for the Badness of Conspiracies
The section outlining Assange's reasons for thinking that conspiracies are bad is the shortest in Ludlow's article and it is difficult to derive a clearcut argument from it. Despite these difficulties, I think the following does justice to the reasoning presented.

  • (1) The goal of a democratic system of governance (or, alternatively, an "ideal system of governance") is to serve the common good (i.e. the good of everybody in society).
  • (2) Conspiracies are self-sustaining closed information networks.
  • (3) These networks will fight for their own survival, not for the common good.
  • (4) Therefore, conspiracies are contrary to the common good.

This argument is logically straightforward and its structure is illustrated below. The idea that conspiratorial networks fight for their own survival is part of the definition of conspiracies outlined above.

The most controversial aspect of this argument is premise (1). This is my own construction and is not found directly in Ludlow's summary. Still, I feel something like this principle must implicitly motivate Assange's dislike of conspiracies because without it his objection would be incomplete. I equivocate between "democracy" and "the ideal system of governance" because I am not sure of Assange's preferences re: systems of governance, but I feel confident that the goal of serving the common good is unobjectionable regardless of those preferences.

Additional controversy might arise from the absolutist nature of the argument. It seems to suggest that all conspiracies are bad. But surely this is wrong since conspiracies, as defined, are practically ubiquitous. For example, my family could satisfy the definition, at least in relation to some of the information that passes between my family members. Surely not all conspiracies are impugned? Surely only powerful conspiracies, such as those existing in governmental networks are damaging?

I'm not sure whether Assange's dislike of conspiracies is absolutist or power-relative in nature. My guess is that the latter is more likely, but that the former is often implied in some of the "all information demands to be set free"-sloganeering I have come across (although I haven't come across such sloganeering from Assange). Fortunately, I think the proceeding analysis can be applied to either form of the argument.

The question now arises: is this a good argument? Does the fact that networks fight for their own survival actually mean they are contrary to the common good? Are closed networks always a bad thing?

There are at least three counterarguments to consider.

Counterargument I: The Non-Zero Sum Argument
The first counterargument I would offer is the following. The argument outlined above seems to assume that survival is a zero-sum game. In other words, it assumes that one entity's survival must come at another entity's expense. But this is obviously false: survival is not a zero-sum game. Many game theoretic models of social and biological evolution reveal that organisms can cooperate for mutual gain (e.g. Smith's invisible hand model of economic exchange).

Formally, this counterargument would run as follows:

  • (5) Assange's initial argument assumes that survival is a zero-sum game: that one network's (CN's) success comes at another network's loss (CS's) and so must be contrary to the common good.
  • (6) But survival is not a zero-sum game, as is revealed in many models of social and cultural evolution.
  • (7) Therefore, (4) is not necessarily true.

Again this argument is relatively straightforward. It is also quite modest: it merely shows that networks, to the extent that they fight for their own survival, need not be contrary to the common good. The argument is relevant, despite its modesty, because of how Assange defines conspiracies. If we move away from the general idea of a self-sustaining conspiratorial network towards the more specific idea of a governmental conspiracy, more interesting counterarguments present themselves.

Counterargument II: Principal-Agent Alignment of Interests
A second problem with the argument for the badness of conspiracies is its assumption that the closed network (CN) will necessarily have interests that are contrary to those of the broader society (CS). We already have some reason to doubt this from the non-zero sum argument outlined above. However, that argument still accepted that CN would be motivated by self-interest. It just pointed out that self-interest can sometimes (paradoxically) serve the common good. 

It can be further argued that CN might explicitly be set up in order to serve the interests of CS. I think here in terms of a principal-agent model of governance wherein CN is effectively "hired" by CS to perform certain tasks that are in the interest of CS. In a representative democracy the government is "hired" by the people to perform such tasks (defence, criminal justice, education, healthcare etc.).

It follows that it might be possible for the interests of CN and CS to be aligned, not antagonistic. Formally, this argument runs as follows:

  • (8) Assange assumes that the interests of the network are necessarily non-aligned or antagonistic to the interests of the broader society.
  • (9) But the network may function as the agent of some principal.
  • (10) Agents are, by definition, supposed to serve the interests of the principal.
  • (11) Therefore, (4) is not necessarily true.

Now, hang on a minute! There's something fishy about this counterargument. As anyone who has studied principal-agent problems will explain, the alignment of interests between an agent and a principal is fickle and ephemeral. The problem of moral hazard always rears its ugly head: agents can go off and do things that are contrary to the principal's interests. Proper incentives, protocols and enforcement mechanisms need to be put in place to avoid this problem. Further, it is likely that full disclosure of information is one of the things that is essential to avoid the problem of moral hazard:

  • (12) (11) does not imply that concealment of information is necessary. Full disclosure may be essential to ensuring the smooth-running of the principal-agent-relationship.

This could lead us once again to the conclusion that conspiracies are bad, particularly governmental conspiracies. But is there, perhaps, a reason to think that the concealment of information is necessary? This brings us to the third counterargument.

Counterargument III: Necessity of Concealed Information in Strategic Interactions
In many strategic settings (e.g. military conflict, industrial disputes, bargaining problems) concealed and/or misleading information are necessary if one wishes to best serve one's interests. 

For example, suppose you are part of a labour union negotiating with an employer over a wage increase. Obviously, the employer wants to offer you as little as possible, while you would prefer as much as possible. Suppose further, that the negotiation takes place over multiple (potentially infinite) rounds of offer and counteroffer and that the overall value of the bargain decays with each round. 

In such a scenario it is generally true that those with less time and money to spare are likely to do worse in the final bargain. Thus, if the workers are in fact poorer than the employer it will be in their interests to conceal that information (or mislead) in order to drive a harder bargain. 

Additionally, it might (as is often observed) be necessary to have full disclosure of information within the labour union in order to facilitate the formation of the appropriate bargaining strategy, without the members needing to worry about the information leaking out and creating a strategic advantage for the other side.

Taking the necessity of concealed information in some strategic settings and coupling it with the supposition that the government acts as the agent of the broader society, we can construct the following argument:

  • (13) Suppose the network (i.e. the government) is the agent of society and so is tasked with serving the common good.
  • (14) Suppose further that the network is engaged in a strategic interaction with another agent (i.e. another government) such as in a military conflict or international treaty negotiation.
  • (15) Concealment of information is often necessary to succeed in strategic interactions.
  • (16) Therefore, a closed, conspiratorial network might be necessary to serve the common good.

This argument gives us reason to think that a closed network might actually serve the common good. But it runs into the problem encountered with the previous argument, namely: full disclosure might be necessary to ensure that the agent's interests are in fact aligned with those of the principal.

There may be a way to overcome this problem:

  • (17) For the concealment strategy to be effective, the agent only needs to conceal the information from the other side (i.e. the other government), it does not need to conceal information from the principal.

This seems right. Consider once more the labour union negotiating on behalf of the workers. There is no suggestion that in order to serve the interests of the workers the union needs to conceal information from them about their negotiating strategy. Indeed, we just said that sharing of information might be essential in order to facilitate the proper formation of strategy.

But can this work in the case of the relationship between a government and the broader society which it is governing? An obvious pragmatic objection arises: there would be no way for a government to share information with all its citizens without a (large) risk of that information being leaked or sent to the other side. Indeed, this would seem to be almost a certainty in a modern society with a diversity of opinions, not all of which would be in concert with the common good (which is just an abstraction), and an international news-media presence. This gives us:

  • (18) Sharing information with all members of a democratic society might be impossible because some may inadvertently or deliberately disclose the information to the other side and thereby undermine the strategic position.

This presents us with a fundamental problem of governance. If we are to assign certain governmental tasks to an agent (i.e. a network), then we face the following dilemma: (i) concealment of information may be necessary when the agent is engaging is some strategic interactions on our behalf; and (ii) disclosure of information may be necessary in order for the principal (i.e. us) to properly police the agent.

We are left with the following, somewhat complicated, argument map.

What conclusions can be drawn from it? Well, first and foremost, we have shown, pretty conclusively, that conspiracies are not necessarily bad: they need not do things that are always contrary to the common good. Indeed, sometimes they may actively serve the common good by concealing information. Thus, an absolutist position on the availability of information would seem implausible. 

We have also shown that assessing the damage that conspiracies actually do is a complex task. There must be some balance struck between the need for concealment and secrecy in some cases and the need for disclosure and accountability. Whether the types of information being disclosed by WikiLeaks upset that balance is a tough call.

One could take the information on a case-by-case basis and work out whether its disclosure does or does not contribute to either agent-accountability or the undermining of strategic interests. For example, one could look at the disclosure outlining Arab nations' concern about the Iran nuclear programme and assess whether it damages ongoing negotiations with Iran. I couldn't comment usefully on that issue, but experts in nuclear arms strategy no doubt have useful things to say.

Working through it on a case-by-case basis would be laborious and would also seem to miss the point. Maybe it's not the pros and cons of the individual leaks that needs to be assessed? Maybe it is the volume that is at issue? Releasing 250,000 documents, no matter how significant the contents, may simply do too much damage to the network's ability to function. Contrariwise, it may be that the position within the US-government (which seems to be the sole "victim" of the leaks so far) is tilted in favour of an excess amount of secrecy and a large disclosure of this nature is a good thing.

Clearly, the balance-issue is a hard one and not one on which I'm willing to reach firm conclusions.

These are not particularly earth-shattering conclusions -- they will no doubt have occurred to people before now. This analysis might succeed in rendering them a little bit more perspicuous. 

The next question to ask, if we accept the badness of conspiracies in at least some cases, is whether the WikiLeaks solution is a good one.

3. The WikiLeaks Solution?
Granting Assange his definition and dislike of conspiracies, what is the solution? How can conspiracies be undermined?

To answer these questions we need to go back to his definition of conspiracies as the emergent property of closed information networks. This definition implies that conspiracies cannot be reduced to individuals or even small groups of individuals: they are products of information networks, not individuals. Furthermore these networks are self-sustaining and resilient.

It follows that targetting individual nodes (such as government operatives or even government units) is not the way to get rid of conspiracies. The way to get rid of conspiracies is to undermine the closed nature of the information network. This can be accomplished by leaking information to the outside and by breaking the network up into smaller and smaller units (balkinisation). This causes the individuals in the network to lose trust in one another, and eventually leads to the disintegration of the network. This is the function of WikiLeaks.

There are at least two problems with this as a proposed solution:
  • (i) The network, by Assange's own definition, fights for its own survival. If it is attacked in this manner, why not assume it will fight back in a more draconian and oppressive way? Particularly if it is a government possessing the means and legal authority to use violence?
  • (ii) Again, by Assange's own definition, conspiracies will contain large numbers of innocent people (unaware of the conspiracy). If they leak information, or are the subjects of leaked information, it could well be that they are subject to attack or threat of violence. Is anything to be done to protect them? Is it not wrong to expose them to the threat of violence or at least something to be included in any moral calculations that might be undertaken?
It seems then that the WikiLeaks solution to the problem of conspiracies is not without problems of its own. Ludlow offers some other critical questions at the end of his essay (such as: is WikiLeaks itself a conspiracy?). I would encourage the reader of consult it for more.

That concludes my analysis of Assange's political philosophy as presented by Ludlow. I will not draw any further conclusions beyond those already drawn.

Added 12/12/10:
Commenter zunguzungu has several interesting posts on the WikiLeaks affair. Two seem particularly relevant here. The first focuses on the general philosophy presented in Assange's 2006 essays on conspiracy networks; the second on how that philosophy might have changed in the interim.

1. Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy

2. WikiLeaks Now


  1. DAMAGE cyber WW3 result: 500k hurt diplomats worldwide. billion soldiers on the side line/out of business (and still insist it's not a war); final 200 nations restuctured. other side:few hackers political imprisoned/their parrents fined. After a short (for many long) war only 1 global transparent free society survives .....never thought WW3 as a joke. Yeah all wars are surprises.

    How can a few wise leaders alone solve complex global issues pending ? People need to be involved/need same info on these complex issues to let our global society decide & survive.

    We NEED transparency for our global society that we created an cannot control.To many crises.
    We'd never gone to Iraq if we read the cables first?

    its e-government(power) not e-commerce(money) that changes our world!
    If democracy fails, the only solution is MORE democracy. The only way is UP.
    This is Far worse for China, than the US. It's your Duty to spread your thoughts.

    WL to much Change for Obama?
    Know It's a hard path, but harder for our totalitarian enemies.

    If democracy fails, the only solution is More democracy.
    E-vote(power), not E-commerce(money) that changes our world, stupid! greets from citzen 434234243!

  2. Brilliantly written as usual.

    I think you've changed my view somewhat so far as their motivations, or at the least the implications of them having that definition of conspiracies is concerned.

    I still get the feeling that giving his definition of conspiracies another label would suffice, but possibly only in regard to the military leaks where the conspiracy regarded actions that were known about from the time of the action by the competing information network 'conspiracies', The diplomatic cables would escape that qualifier.

    Anyway, time to mull over this some more :)

    Enjoy the rest of your break, I look forward to more in the new year.



  3. Mark,

    If I'm understanding you correctly, I think I agree. There could be no justification, on my analysis, for the state concealing something from the citizenry if the other side to the strategic interaction was already aware of it.

    To this extent, perhaps a distinction can be drawn between cover-ups of past mistakes and wrongdoings, and concealments of information relating to ongoing strategic interests. If the government is simply trying to protect itself from an irate electorate, they cannot appeal to my third counterargument.

    That said, there will no doubt be those who argue that some cover-ups -- relating to stuff the other side is not aware of -- are essential to ongoing strategic interests. For example, if past mistakes reveal a high level of incompetence among government operatives, it might undermine the government's strategic position with respect to a military opponent. I've been thinking about this recently in relation to the Irish government and their bargaining with the IMF/EU for financial assistance. However, in that case some knowledge of incompetence is in the public domain (although I suspect more is hidden).

    On the other hand, in such cases, knowledge of incompetence is probably something that an electorate should know about in order to properly police and hold to account the government.

    Again, it seems there is a balance to be struck (although I should say my gut instinct is that knowledge of incompetence is something that should always be released).

    I just wanted to make one other observation about the arguments presented in this post. My analysis is set very much against a game theoretic backdrop which sees information as something that will always be (and perhaps should always be) manipulated in order to serve one's interests.

    It may be that I am too wedded to the game-theoretic perspective, and so fail to see the potential benefits of a totally transparent society.

  4. Assange's two "essays" are all of 3600 words. Your post is about 3,200. How do you write a commentary that is almost as long as a primary text you don't have time to actually read? I've spent some time explicating Assange's essays, and I both respect Ludlow's explication and have reservations about some of the moves he makes. That's probably inevitable, fine piece of work though it is. But I'm utterly startled that you would treat Ludlow's piece as if it's a substitute for the original text itself. Did you not realize how short the actual essays are?

  5. I'd like to make two notes:

    1) As someone (Ludlow?) brought up, the really big question is how we as a society want to treat leaks and their publication in an international context. The rise of the internet makes such publications easy, whereas once they were difficult if possible at all. It's been compared to the printing press revolution - small printers allowed information that couldn't get published before get wide circulation, but that eventually came under new laws.

    2) As a means of weakening conspiracies, I think Wikileaks is highly ineffective. The costs of setting up an almost leak-free network aren't high for a massive organization or country. Most don't bother, but all that Wikileaks can do is add this rather minor expense to their expenditures. That won't significantly lower the network's efficiency and potency. As an example - leaks from the US army, while clearly possible, are also clearly punished, so I don't expect that many more to transpire; and the effect of those that did would be to greatly lower the ability of future whistleblowers to gain access to and publish such data. Likewise, leaks from more authoritarian regimes where the risks to the whistleblower are greater and the security higher just don't exist. I just don't think Wikileaks would be effective in its (ingenious) goal of undermining conspiracies; it would only predate on weak and poorly-funded conspiracies.


  6. No I didn't realise that. Ludlow gave the impression that he had to wade through more than two essays to come up with his summary since he speaks of blog posts and position papers, which makes it sound like more than two. I certainly assumed this was the case, but then you're right in that he only cites two essays in the body of his piece.

    Why didn't I read them? Well, I happen to check Leiter Reports on a daily basis and so was lucky enough to stumble across Ludlow's essay. An analysis of Assange's philosophy is not something I would otherwise have actively sought out. Since his essay was short, I read through it and jotted down some notes. I then assembled those into this blog post, largely to clarify my own thoughts (as is the case with most of my posts).

    I tried to make clear that this was an analysis of Ludlow's summary in the original post. I would of course agree that it is no substitute for the primary source material. You're right to call me on it, especially since the source material is so brief.

    Anyway, I've now read the two essays (there's quite a lot of overlap between them). I'm not sure that doing so makes me want to change much of my original post (then again I would say that, wouldn't I?).

    I would say that I think Assange definitely pushes the power-relative version of the argument against conspiracies more than I suggest in my post. He tries to come up with a rough measure of conspiratorial power and expresses concern about authoritarian regimes and their tendency to govern by conspiracy.

    I would also say this might make his argument against conspiracies a little more complex. The idea of the network fighting for its survival is still significant but it also seems to have something to do with the authoritarian nature of the network. In particular it seems like his argument is more:

    (1) Authoritarianism is bad
    (2) Conspiracies are the mark of authoritarianism
    (3) So conspiracies are bad.

    This means we have to have a debate about what an authoritarian system of governance actually is and whether it is necessarily bad. If it just means a system that has some monopoly on the use of coercive force we face a dilemma akin to that discussed in the post: such a system would seem to be inevitable and even (to some extent) desirable, so it becomes a question of balance.


    I think I basically agree (although I'm not sure how you feel about the potential necessity of concealed information in some contexts). I also think it will be interesting to see if WikiLeaks can get leaks from more authoritarian regimes than the US (although I'm not sure that that would help).

  7. We NEED transparency for our global society to survive.
    To many crises, our steering mechanism/leadership cannot switch fast enough.
    We'd never gone to Iraq if we read the cables first?
    How can a few wise leaders understand complex global issues and explain why to ?
    China outcompetes us. Small bad countries drain our resourses.
    We can redesign our economies and win.
    If democracy fails, the only solution is More democracy.
    WL to much Change for Obama?
    Believe your core values, xx harder for our totalitarian enemies.

    People need to be involved/need same info.
    It's your Duty to spread your thoughts.
    just lazy vote, won't save your world this time.
    Tech changes the world and WWW is the biggest change ever.

    DAMAGE cyber WW3 result: 500k hurt diplomats worldwide,
    final 200 nations restuctured. Left is only 1 global transparent free society survives ..... never thought WW3 as a joke. Yeah all wars are surprises.
    The only way is UP.

  8. I find Granovetter's 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties very useful in looking at Assange's ideas.

    Also re-examination of the essentials of in-groups. Conditions could be described in which, for example, a religion considered as an in-group, sociologically and psychologically, might be deemed a kind of conspiracy, particularly if there is some sort of self-appointed elect. In Catharism, for example, there were the Perecti and the Credentes. The demands of asceticism fell upon the Perfecti. So, they might be classed a good conspiracy.

    Where there is a under-current of secret knowledge within a bigger organisation there is surely a conspiracy (good or bad...)

    The Neo-Con Project was most certainly a conspiracy because there was an understanding among the cognoscenti that democracy was a necessary fantasy (shades of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor) in order to create the conditions for an ordered society controlled by the few who really understood how society worked and had to be managed.