An evening with whistleblowers at the Oxford Union

In our quest to explore transparency initiatives across Europe, whistleblowers – who expose wrongdoings within an organisation in the hope of stopping it – are an important focus for us. Such individuals are increasingly recognised as hugely important in preventing and detecting corruption and other malpractices. It is well-known that the founding of WikiLeaks by Julian Assange in 2006 was a major breakthrough for whistleblowers and the public alike: for the first time, an online platform promised greater protection for sources by allowing whistleblowers to leak secret information, classified reports and malpractices across the world.

Such reporting, however, comes at a high price, as whistleblowers often take great personal risks to inform the public. Though WikiLeaks introduced an innovative electronic dropbox, which provides a largely secure channel for sources to anonymously upload classified reports, the consequences for whistleblowers like Bradley Manning prominently highlight its limitations.

Hence we wondered: what happens to whistleblowers after they’ve blown the whistle?

Last week we were very lucky to get the chance to hear the stories of some of these whistleblowers at the Sam Awards Ceremony at the Oxford Union. The event brought together several distinguished whistleblowers, many of whom have risked their careers and personal safety to alert the public of malpractice in government institutions. The ceremony was organised by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII), a movement of former CIA associates thats gets together each year to confer an award to a member of the intelligence profession or whistleblower who ‘exemplifies the courage, persistence and devotion to truth – no matter the consequences.’ Several prominent individuals were invited to speak at this year’s event, including the 2010 recipient of the Sam Adams Award Julius Assange, who joined us via videolink from the Ecuadorian Embassy. For more background on the award, click here.

The oxford unionThe event was held in the Debating Chamber of the Union.

Arriving at the Oxford Union, I was slightly overwhelmed by the sight: around fifty angry students were blocking the entrance to the gate. Protesting against the Union’s invitation to Assange, their poster-boards called for “Integrity, Justice & Truth” and to “Stop Rape Culture.” During my forty-five minute wait in the queue, the other guests and I had no choice but to listen to their continuous chants: “Oxford Union, shame on you, now you’re a rape apologist too!”

Once inside the Union, the actual event began. The main purpose was to present Professor Thomas Fingar with the Sam Adams Award, which takes the form of a wooden candlestick. As former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), Prof. Fingar had overseen the 2007 landmark NIC Estimate on Iran in which all sixteen US intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon work in 2004. Though several high-level political figures had been pressing for an attack on Iran, Prof. Fingar ensured that the intelligence agencies remained objective and neutral, hence helping prevent the Bush/Cheney administration from going to war in 2008. The recipient of this year’s award was therefore not a whistleblower in the usual sense, but rather a strong individual displaying ‘integrity and professionalism’ by not allowing political influence to infiltrate his organisation.

A very impressive list of speeches followed, held by both former Sam Adams awardees and other whistleblowers. There was Coleen Rowley, who had retired from the FBI after twenty-four years, having exposed the mishandling of information relating to 9/11. Then there was Annie Machon, a former officer at the UK Security Service M15, who was forced to go into hiding in Europe for several years in the late 1990s after blowing the whistle on criminal activities in M15. She gave a very inspirational speech about what it was like to blow the whistle and run, as well as the abuses that still exist in the intelligence services today. Another vocal and eloquent speaker was Ann Wright, one of the only three US State Department officials to resign over the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In another very passionate speech, she emphasized the importance of not accepting so-called truths at face value and called on citizens to ‘do their bit’ to hold their own leaders and organisations to account. Other equally impressive speakers and guests included Katharine GunThomas DrakeRay McGovernBrady Kiesling, David McMichael, Elizabeth Murray and Todd Pierce.

Julian Assange was then introduced by his friend Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and human rights campaigner. Speaking from the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange congratulated Prof. Fingar on his work and then continued on to describe WikiLeaks as “the most important mechanism for expressing the truth since the printing press.” He also strongly criticised the planned Hollywood film about WikiLeaks (entitled “The Fifth Estate”), describing the film as a ‘massive propaganda attack’ that ‘fann[ed] the flames of war’ against Iran by suggesting the country was working on an atomic weapon. Click here to read about Assange’s view of the film.

Julian Assange speaking via videolink at the Oxford Union.

What was perhaps a shame was that the Q&A session was largely directed at Assange and his own future at the Ecuadorian Embassy – rather than the larger subject of whistleblowing and transparency. This was despite the fact that the Union had emphasized that Assange’s presence was not to ‘overshadow the ceremony or the award itself’, as the real focus was on ‘exposing institutional corruption and expousing freedom of speech’.

Hence the majority of questions circled around Assange’s personal life: why did he refuse to face charges of sexual assault in Sweden? What did he have to say to the anti-Assange protests outside the Union? How much longer was he planning to stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy? Assange in turn persistently avoided answering questions about his own legal situation, referring the students to

One good question was posed towards the end of the event, which was directed at all invited whistleblowers. It related to the question of transparency and how much of it we need, and how much we want. Craig Murray had said that WikiLeaks was absolutely necessary because governments cannot be trusted. And there seems no doubt that initiatives forcing greater transparency are good for our society. But where do we draw the line? Is it really the case that ‘the more open information, the better?’ Though this subject has been much debated with respect to WikiLeaks, we hope to look at this question from more angles – not just from the perspective of whistleblowers, but also with respect to its impact on political processes and society. More on that in a later blog…


YouTube vs. GEMA


Looking for official music videos on YouTube in Germany, you are often notified that videos are not available. More specifically, this is the case for 61.5% of the 1000 most popular music videos. YouTube assumes that the video

“might contain music for which GEMA has not granted the required copyrights“.

The GEMA, the public Society for Musical Performing and Mechanical Reproduction Rights, is currently suing YouTube for putting the blame on them instead of simply paying the necessary fee to avoid blocked videos. GEMA’s job is to help musicians get their share of the money that other people earn by spreading and using their music – and it charges a much larger sum for this than copyright collecting agencies in other countries. On the other hand, YouTube (just like its parent company Google) sees itself as representing the interests of the masses and the freedom of information and art. It earns a lot of money with revenues from adverts, e.g. with the video Gangnam Style that is – of course – blocked in Germany.

OpenDataCity has now evaluated the top 1000 music videos on YouTube, finding out that out of these, 615 videos are not available in Germany. This is by far the highest share of blocked videos in the world. South Sudan (ranked second) is blocking 152 videos, the Vatican (ranked third) 51 and Afghanistan 44.

gema vs youtube

According to,

“…along the way, YouTube has become the largest archive of popular culture in human history – but in Germany, you would barely notice that.”

The lack of openness in Germany prevents YouTube from being an important social network that forms and reflects popular culture, as is the case in other countries. And given the numbers published by OpenDataCity, this is no surprise.

Standortvorteil Pressefreiheit? -Islands Antwort auf die Wirtschaftskrise

In der Wirtschaftskrise 2008 war Island Schauplatz des verhältnismäßig größten Banken-Zusammenbruchs der modernen Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Das Versprechen hoher Zinsen und ein Modell kurzfristiger Refinanzierung langfristiger Forderungen lockten internationales Kapital in den Inselstaat -Resultat war ein Kollaps der drei größten Banken des Landes.

Nachdem die Enthüllungsplattform WikiLeaks geheime Unterlagen der Kaupthing Bank veröffentlicht hatte, wurde ein Grund für den Kollaps der Banken in mangelhafter Berichterstattung gefunden. Der Schluss, dass unzureichende Transparenz zur größten Wirtschaftskrise in der Geschichte des Landes geführt hatte führte zu einem Umdenken im breiten Teilen der Gesellschaft.

Ein vorläufiges Resultat ist die Isländischen Initiative zu modernen Medien (IMMI), die 2010 parteiübergreifende Unterstützung im Parlament gefunden hat und seitdem umgesetzt wird. Ziel ist es die modernste Rechtsprechung im Bereich Meinungs- und Informationsfreiheit zu schaffen und Island zu einem „Himmel für Journalisten“ werden zu lassen.

Julian Assange, der Gründer von WikiLeaks, ist an der Ausarbeitung der Initiative beteiligt und beschreibt das Vorgehen in einem BBC Interview. Man hätte unterschiedliche Gesetze in verschiedenen Ländern gefunden, so dienen die Rechtssysteme in Norwegen, Schweden, Estland und den USA als Vorbild, wobei der Unterschied darin bestehen werde, dass keines der Länder alle diese Gesetze verbunden hat.

Das Gesetzespaket soll eine breite Reichweite von Themen abdecken. Eckpunke sind ein weitgehender „Whistlerblower-Schutz“, Sicherung der Kommunikation zwischen Journalisten und ihren Quellen, Untersagung legaler Mechanismen, die Veröffentlichungen einschränken könnten und eine Absicherung gegen das sogenannte „Libel Tourism“.

Ist das Gesetzespaket ein Vorbild für andere Länder und ein endlich adäquater Umgang mit Meinungs- und Informationsfreiheit im Online- Zeitalter? Wird Island zu einem Hafen für Pressefreiheit und schafft sich mit der deutlichen Positionierung einen Standortvorteil? Oder ist der Vorschlag, der ohne Gegenstimme im Parlament angenommen wurde eine überstürzte Reaktion, mit möglichen Konfliktfeldern zur Europäische Menschenrechtskonvention?

Bundestag: Auf dem Weg ins digitale Zeitalter

Dass das Internet kein Nischenthema für IT-Freaks ist, hat sich schon eine ganze Weile herumgesprochen. Seit damit Wahlen zu gewinnen sind, steht die Nutzung des Webs aber auch für die Politik weit oben auf der Tagesordnung. Das Internet soll – zumindest in der Wahrnehmung – vom Stiefkind zur Chefsache werden. Im Mai 2010 setzte der Bundestag deshalb die Enquête-Kommission Internet und digitale Gesellschaft ein. Das Ziel: Die Abgeordneten und Sachverständigen sollen die technischen und gesellschaftlichen Auswirkungen der Digitalisierung ausloten – und durch konkrete Handlungsempfehlungen die Politik ins digitale Zeitalter katapultieren. In verschiedene Arbeitsgruppen wurden vom Datenschutz über Netzneutralität bis zum Urheberrechts oder freier Software die anstehende Web-Agenda gründlich abgeklopft.

Am kommenden Montag, 28. Januar, legt die Enquête-Kommission ihren Abschlussbericht vor. Darin enthalten sind auch konkrete Empfehlungen an das Parlament. Klar ist bereits, dass sich einige Mitglieder dafür aussprechen, Netzpolitik nicht mehr von allen Ministerien behandeln zu lassen. Sie wollen einen Staatsminister für das Internet einsetzen, der im Kanzleramt angesiedelt werden soll. Bisher ist vor allem das Innenministerium für Internet-Fragen zuständig. Das reicht den Parlamentariern aber nicht aus: Auch ein ständiger Ausschuss soll sich mit dem Potential des WWW befassen.

Bei der vergangenen Sitzung am 14. Januar hatten sich die Kommissionsmitglieder auch dafür ausgesprochen, den Ausbau von leistungsfähigen Internetleitungen schneller voranzutreiben.

Im Verlauf der Sitzungen hatten sich die in der Kommission vertretenen Parteien bei den Themen Online-Durchsuchung, Datenschutz und Netzneutralität  weit weniger einig gezeigt. Online-Wahlen erteilte die Kommission eine Absage.

In Sachen Transparenz wollte die Kommission auch Standards setzen. Mithilfe der Software Adhocracy konnte Interessierte sich an der Diskussion beteiligen: Zu Vorschlägen der Kommission konnten Kommentare gepostet werden. Auch eigene Empfehlungen konnten netzaffine User einstellen und abstimmen lassen. Die öffentlichen Ausschuss-Sitzungen konnte live im Netz verfolgt werden und stehen jederzeit zum Abruf zur Verfügung. Kommende Woche besteht allerdings auch die Möglichkeit, ganz real an der Abschlusssitzung teilzunehmen.

Gerade im Datenschutz und bei der Netzneutralität sind künftig entscheidende Weichen zu stellen. Auch was die Transparenz politischer Entscheidungsprozesse und die Mitmach-Möglichkeiten für Bürger angeht, sind drängende Fragen zu beantworten. Wenn die Piraten auch zurzeit den Kompass verloren haben, so hat ihr Aufstieg doch das Internet und dessen Auswirkungen ins Zentrum der Politik gerückt. Ob das so bleibt, die Empfehlungen der Kommission im Rauschen des Berliner Parlamentsbetriebs untergehen oder der rhetorischen Beschwörung des Internets auch handfeste Entscheidungen folgen, wird sich wohl erst nach der Wahl im Herbst zeigen.

Liquid Friesland – citizen participation, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day?

When we hear buzzwords like ‘digital revolution’ and ‘transparency through e-democracy’  in Germany, we usually think about the Pirate Party. Last year, the newcomer party astounded citizens and political observers alike, overcoming the 5% hurdle in local elections in Berlin, Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine Westphalia. Their party platform has included ideals such as greater transparency in politics, stronger citizen participation in politics and finding a better mix between direct and representative democracy.

But with all eyes on the Pirate Party – where analyses range from awestruck fascination to more sober accounts concerning its future – another new and exciting phenomenon in Germany has obtained much less attention.


Otherwise known as a summer tourist destination for German families, tiny Friesland now has Germany’s first participatory platform.

On November 9th 2012, the small district of Friesland became the first in Germany to use the software Liquid Feedback in local politics. Initially developed by the Pirate Party, Liquid Feedback is a web-based open source decision-making tool which, in the case of the Pirate Party, allows members to delegate their votes to other members whose opinions they trust. But Sven Ambrosy, the District Administrator of Friesland, decided that this software could be adapted and used at citizen level, as a way to better involve local views into political decision-making. Following approval from the county council, Liquid Feedback was thus implemented in Friesland in early November as a ‘test case’ for one year.

So, what are the implications of Liquid Feedback for politics in Friesland? Using the web portal, registered citizens can discuss relevant issues of interest, make concrete suggestions and amend others, as well as vote on fellow citizens’ initiatives. Given a certain number of votes around a given topic, a citizen’s initiative must by law be discussed by the county council, the Kreistag. As one local newspaper ambitiously wrote, Friesland’s implementation of Liquid Feedback is ‘a world premiere for citizen participation.’

Proponents of this so-called Liquid Friesland applaud the direct link between online participation and real decision-making. With a mere mouseclick, personal ideas can be suggested, debated and sent for discussion at the political level. Citizens can then verify online when and how the Kreistag has discussed the specific matter and what decisions were made. In the words of Sven Ambrosy, ‘for the first time, citizens know that their views and perspectives are being heard and taken seriously by politicians.’

Two and a half months after its implementation, we wonder: how has Liquid Friesland fared so far? The results are somewhat sobering. A few weeks ago, Friesland counted its 500th registered user – a figure far from overwhelming in a population of 100,000. And whilst several topics have already been discussed in the portal, such as the construction of disabled-friendly access to the beach, a maximum of 15-20 people have participated in each debate. Many observers are skeptical: is this really revolutionary compared to traditional politics? Doesn’t this prove that citizen participation rates are just as low online as they are offline?

We don’t have answers to these questions and, besides, it’s probably much too early to tell. But we wonder whether these questions are perhaps missing the point. In any case, should we really expect online methods of participation to ‘revolutionize’ politics? Or doesn’t it just represent an additional channel for people to involve themselves in politics, with the hope of creating a more inclusive system in the long-run? And aren’t we still at the learning stage? Personally I find it very exciting that classes teaching Liquid Feedback at the local Volkshochschule (community college) have been booked out for months, and that computer-savvy Friesländer have volunteered to help teach others the software.

Who knows what Liquid Friesland will bring…but we’re looking forward to tracking its developments!

Byung-Chul Han über die Transparenzgesellschaft

Byung-Chul Han ist wahrscheinlich einer der interessantesten aber auch kategorischsten gegenwärtigen Philosophen Deutschlands. In Seoul geboren, hat er in 1980er Südkorea verlassen und ist nach Deutschland ausgewandert, um einen Weg zum Kulturpessimismus zu finden. Durch sein vielfältiges Wissen und positive Haltung zu den Interviews wurde er in Deutschland in den letzten Jahren immer berühmter, hauptsächlich durch seine Analyse der sogenannten Transparenzgesellschaft und Müdigkeitsgesellschaft.

Kurz gesagt, Han ist der Gegner einer totalitären, oberflächlichen, vertrauenslosen – Transparenz -Gesellschaft.

Seine Gründe:

Wikileaks, Tunisia and the Arab Spring

After the furore has died down about overstated claims of responsibility from Facebook and other social media sites for the Arab Spring, we can begin to understand the effects of increased media transparency on the series of revolutions throughout the Arab World. Tunisia, where the first demonstration took place, and the first country to eject its leadership, was a major catalyst for further demonstrations and revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the ongoing violence in Syria and other smaller civil disturbances throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The former President-for-life of Tunisia, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, recieved over 90% of the vote in every election between 1987 and 2011, whilst maintaining a luxurious lifestyle for himself, his wife Laila, and other members of the Ben Ali family.

Riots in Tunisia, and public expressions of discontent in general, were rare prior to the revolution, largely due to the efficiency of the oppressive organisations employed by the Ben Ali Government, and the relatively high standard of living of Tunisians, in contrast to their neighbours in other North African countries. However, like in many Arab countries, the necessities of life were subsidised by government institutions- The National Solidarity Fund and the National Employment Fund are two examples. in the years prior to the revolution, attempts were made to liberalise these institutions, leading to a worsening in the living standards, along with a reduction in employment prospects for young people, particularly after the financial crisis in 2008, all of which were compounded by food price inflation, leading to a crisis situation in which Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, the first of many desperate acts of resistance against the ruling family.

While it is clear that the fabulous wealth of the Ben Ali family, in contrast to the relative poverty of the country as a whole, was well known amongst Tunisians, it is also clear that Wikileak’s expose of the accounts of American diplomat Robert Godec, who writes about the Ben Ali’s lavish lifestyle in detial when he visited Ben Ali’s daughter and son-in-law for dinner, outlines the problems of corruption, or who explains the problems of the regime in general, made the differences between the ruling family and the embittered population clear and undeniable.

Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the 
excesses of President Ben Ali's family that inspire outrage 
among Tunisians.  With Tunisians facing rising inflation and 
high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and 
persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire.

Godec’s prescient quote, taken from the second of the cables listed above, appears to encapsulate the Tunisian Revolution, and Wikileaks role within it, very well. Middle-Class Tunisians, notably present in demonstrations and whose role was imperative in the revolution, could no -longer deny the disparity in living standards between the ruling family and themselves. However, this seems to over-state the importance of Wikileaks, as it was clear that Ben Ali decadence was common knowledge. Julian Assange has another idea of what the importance of Wikileaks was:

…the elites within the country and without the country also know what is going on, and they can’t deny it, so, a situation developed where it was not possible for the United States to support the Ben Ali regime, and intervene in a revolution, in the way that it might have. Similarly, it was not possible for France to support Ben Ali or other partners in the same way that they might have been able to…the United States, or at least the state department, could be read, that if it came down to supporting the army or Ben Ali, they would probably support the army, the military class, rather than the political class. So that gave activists and the army, uh, a belief that they could possibly pull it off.

Assange’s theory, then, is that although the Wikileaks had a minimal effect in Tunisia, where they were more or less already common knowledge, the publication of this information on the world stage robbed the US and European powers of the ability to feign ignorance of the asociality of the Ben Ali regime, and intervene on their behalf. A brief reading of the cables regarding Tunisia supports some of what Assange says, it being made clear that the US regards the Ben Ali regime as an ally and an asset in the region, despite its instabilities already mentioned. And cooperation with the military class is cited as one of few successes in an attempt to work closer with the Tunisian Government. However, this theory is also beset with a lot of problems- we don’t know what the decision-making process is like within the major world powers, Julian Assange is clearly an outside figure, and his account of the Tunisian revolution contains several factual inaccuracies, to say nothing of the paranoia of which he is regularly accused.

What is interesting in the Tunisian case, however, is the distinction between common knowledge, and confirmed fact, and the effect that transparency can have not just on domestic politics, but the way in which it may also force international actors to justify their decisions on confirmed facts, rather than “common knowledge”. The effects of what is a relatively new tool are yet to be fully felt.

“…all kinds of things for weaklings…”

Jón Gnarr Kristinsson has been the mayor of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, since June 2010. He won a surprise plurality of the vote, pushing the established Independence Party out of City Hall, and pushing his way into professional politics. Widely believed to have received the votes of disgruntled citizens, unhappy with the status quo after the 2008 financial crisis, Jón Gnarr and his Best Party certainly don’t take themselves too seriously, as you can see in their election broadcast:

The Best Party, however, seem to have done a seriously good job in the past two and a half years. Despite making fun of current political buzzwords, promising “sustainable transparency” in their Party Political Broadcast, and points 3 and 5 of their 10 point manifesto (which contains 13 points):

3. Stop corruption: We promise to stop corruption. We’ll accomplish this by participating in it openly.

5. Increase transparency: It’s best to have everything aboveboard so that the general public knows what is going on. We say we support that.

the Best Party have made some efforts to open up policy making and devolve decisions closer to individual citizens. Their win has been attributed to their substantial use of Better Reykjavik, a crowd-sourcing platform, although it is likely to have played a role amongst other factors. The Mayor has continued to use the platform, and it has now become an established part of municipal politics. You can also see Jón Gnarr’s considerable personal openness here, in his facebook diary.

What we think is interesting about the Best Party’s success, is its combination of constitutional openness, in which consultations play a major role, and its formal openness, in which politicians reject wholesale the idea that they know what they are doing, implicating established politicians in the pretense of knowing everything. Reading through Jón Gnarr’s diary on facebook, it is clear that he personally responds to some of his readers, and that he has a style of writing that makes him feel like a human being, something that we are not used to with politicians.

The irreverence shown by the Best Party is of course funny, but along with the concrete steps towards political openness and transparency, it seems like a fascinating step towards a new type of politics. We wonder what the relationship between the two is; can we have political openness without a personal touch? Or is one dependent on the other, for example motivating citizens to engage with politics because of the close relationship they feel with politicians?