August 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Transparency Edition)

It's very hard work to run an organization, let alone one that's constantly being spied upon and sued.

Julian Assange, on why his organization does not publish donor information.

What is the over/under on current or former U.S. government officials who read that sentence in today's Wall Street Journal and choked on their coffee? 2,000? 5,000?

It's obviously pretty rich to hear Julian Assange admit that sometimes, secrecy has advantages. Assange wants a standard of transparency where he alone is the arbiter of what remains secret, and I suspect he has a pretty black and white view of things: big governments, bad; plucky leftist internet interests, good. The former have little to no right to secrecy, while the latter have all that they themselves deem necessary. The hypocrisy, here, is on full display.

There has been a lot written about the failure of large organizations, governmental and non-governmental, to adapt to the internet age. But the more I look at internet-age organizations, they more it looks as if they too can't quite figure out how they themselves fit into the world. I was reminded of a friend who spoke with some executives at Google and asked why they posted this or that image of U.S. military installations on Google Earth. "Hey," the answer came back, "information wants to be free."

Okay, my friend asked, then why don't you publish the exact locations of your data centers? His question was met with nervous laughter.

At the moment, the street-view imagery on Google Earth is causing a controversy in Germany, where folks are less enthusiastic about their homes being photographed and put on the internet in high resolution than we Americans have been. Reading about the controversy in the FT over the weekend, I was struck by this quote from Peter Schaar, Germany's data protection chief:

I sometimes get the impression that Google in some areas still acts like the quirky garage start-up that's driven by the sheer enthusiasm of its founders.

This will be cold comfort to governments around the world, but it's becoming more and more apparent that the organizations that should feel most comfortable in the internet age are having as much trouble adjusting to it as everyone else.