This is the seventh conversation of the 100+ Conversations to Inspire Our New Direction (#OKFN100) project.
Since January 2023, we are meeting with more than 100 people to discuss the future of open knowledge, shaped by a diverse set of visions from artists, activists, scholars, archivists, thinkers, policymakers, data scientists, educators, and community leaders from everyone.
The Open Knowledge Foundation team wants to identify and discuss issues sensitive to our movement and use this effort to constantly shape our actions and business strategies to deliver best what the community expects of us and our network, a pioneering organisation that has been defining the standards of the open movement for two decades.
Another goal is to include the perspectives of people of diverse backgrounds, especially those from marginalised communities, dissident identities, and whose geographic location is outside of the world’s major financial powers.
How openness can accelerate and strengthen the struggles against the complex challenges of our time? This is the key question behind conversations like the one you can read below.
This week we had the chance to talk with the investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, the only one who worked on all the WikiLeaks secret documents, in addition to partnering with Glenn Greenwald on the Snowden files regarding Italy. She is currently working for the major Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, after 14 years working for the Italian leading newsmagazine l’Espresso and the Italian daily La Repubblica.
Stefania is also the only one who has been engaged in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case and litigation since 2015 in the UK, US, Australia and Sweden to access the full documentation on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to factually reconstruct the case.
Stefania has recently authored the book “Secret Power: WikiLeaks and Its Enemies” (Pluto Press, 2022), foreword by Ken Loach, which has won the European Award for Investigative and Judicial Journalism, the Alessandro Leogrande Award for Investigative Journalism in Literary Form, and the Angelo Vassallo Prize.
In addition, Stefania is scheduled to open with a keynote the event The Tech We Want to Open Governments, promoted by the Open Knowledge Network as an official parallel event to the Open Government Partnership Global Summit, in Tallinn, Estonia, on September 4th. The conversation below was recorded on August 11th and serves as a preview of what audiences can expect to see in a few weeks’ time.
With each conversation, more people join the project. This time the conversation was run by Lucas Pretti, OKFN’s Communications Lead, and Renata Ávila, CEO at OKFN.
We hope you enjoy the read and meet us face-to-face in Tallinn.
Renata Ávila: The first decade of the century brought to light different movements and grassroots efforts promoting citizen engagement, transparency and accountability. Those included citizens organising to improve access to information, accountability and the battle against corruption using the Web and data. One of the most impactful efforts was WikiLeaks, which combined the power of encryption to protect sources with robust partnerships to publish. That was almost fifteen years ago. Today, the panorama is darker. While there are more people connected than ever before, disinformation is rampant. The information governments hold about citizens increased together with its opacity, usually excused by national security arguments.
One of the concerns is that technology, which was once seen as a powerful tool for transparency and accountability, is becoming less transparent itself. What has changed, or has been changing, in the last decade concerning public transparency and access to public information?
Stefania Maurizi: Before WikiLeaks, we could access information using tools like the Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA), but it was painful and very limited. FOI laws can provide some kind of openness in some parts of a legal process, as there are many layers to it (lawyers, people under investigation, public accusers, etc) and they are subjected to some level of scrutiny. But for other details about how the state works (military, diplomacy, etc) it is almost impossible to investigate using FOIA only.
For that, a journalist like me had to rely on sources, but sources were rarely willing to share real documentation. You needed to trust them and, in many cases, there was no way to check what they are telling you. Of course, they always had an interest and tried to manipulate. You could never know to what extent a piece of information was cherry-picked to advance the source’s own agenda.
As a journalist, I have seen many colleagues becoming a channel in the interest of a source. I didn’t want to be part of this. I didn’t want to be a channel for the police, or the prosecutors, or for a company. It was highly problematic for journalists who didn’t want to be a tool for these powerful entities.
So what WikiLeaks did was unleash a revolution. For the first time, we had access to documentation, which was amazing. There was no other way to get such information. The age of WikiLeaks and whistleblowers changed everything.
Renata Ávila: WikiLeaks happened a long time ago, and younger audiences may not understand what it meant exactly or don’t have the memory to see a clear before and after. You are referring basically to two things: the mechanism to anonymously leak information and blow the whistle, and the publication of material online. Can you elaborate and explain how each component was transformative?
Stefania Maurizi: First of all, it was transformative because, for the first time, sources had the chance to leak information massively and anonymously. Journalists were used to getting packages of documents in a newsroom, or a USB stick, but it didn’t work very well as sources were aware that they could be tracked down. With WikiLeaks, sources started having the opportunity to leak anonymously.
What I think was especially revolutionary is the fact that people who were operating in the darkness of state secrecy realised that it could be done and that they now had a platform for that. People like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and many others became role models for hundreds of public servants who were operating in the darkness of secrecy and didn’t necessarily agree with that. These people realised they could be part of the change.
People inside the military, diplomacy, and other highly secretive bodies of the state grow up with a mindset of keeping secrets, confidentiality, and protected documentation. But sometimes they are taken into covering up crimes. So it’s not about confidentiality at all. It’s about being part of a mafia: your state is committing these crimes and you are a part of it.
Shaking these secret state bodies was the revolution after all, by making people ask themselves ‘Do I want to be part of this?’. We absolutely need whistleblowers. We absolutely need WikiLeaks. We absolutely need leaks compared to the FOI requests.
Renata Ávila: Let me bring the conversation closer to the work the Open Knowledge Foundation does. We know that digital information can be a total mess. There are locked PDFs, watermarked documents, encrypted files, that is, massive documentation that is impossible to make sense of. In your work, you obtain information, but many times this information is not following any standards and ends up being inaccessible. So even if information is published, it is not accessible, it is not open knowledge that can be transformative. It needs an extra hand of data activists and technologists to be accessible and open. For example, public interest technologists helping journalists build data literacy or simply giving them tools to solve such technical problems. What is your experience when working with a lot of information that has been disclosed but is still “locked”?
Stefania Maurizi: That’s a great point. Having the privilege of accessing secret information is a very hard task, and many times the second layer is to make that information accessible, in which you can’t even make a search. You can have the most critical information, but if they are not accessible, there’s no way you can work with that.
I remember the case of the Syria Files, made of more than two million documents and email conversations between political figures. There was a lot of rubbish. I needed to be able to separate, sort, filter, and get rid of the rubbish to understand what’s the really important part of the dataset. The tech people were absolutely important in helping us to understand what content was worth analysing. Making it accessible is half of the work. The other half is verifying whether the documents are authentic and genuine.
We face the same problem with FOI requests. Even when governments respond and provide the information, they can still be manipulated in different parts. They can redact whatever they want, hide or highlight certain parts. And this is something that computer engineers and tech activists can help a lot.
Lucas Pretti: The process against Donald Trump that is currently hitting the headlines is very much based on classified documents. It’s a silly example, but what is being said is that no one can have secret documents in their house or toilet. So the whole point of Trump’s case is the statement that some things should remain secret. What are those things? What are the limits to state secrecy in your opinion?
Stefania Maurizi: Not all secrets are alike. There are legitimate secrets. For example, when a secret protects the security of an airport, a train station, or a power plant. It’s fully legitimate for a community to protect secrecy surrounding the security of certain facilities and infrastructures. The crime would be to reveal such information against people’s safety.
But when it comes to massive work crimes like torture, corruption and so on, those are completely illegitimate secrets. Those secrets are not to be protected. If protected, they are not protecting the community, but the establishment, the institution, and making them unaccountable to the people. Military and diplomatic bodies are using secrecy to protect crimes against humanity and the common good. It is completely unacceptable and corrupt if someone keeps a secret that people should be aware of.
I think it’s not difficult at all to differentiate what is legitimate and what is not. But people don’t understand the difference. It happens even with my journalist colleagues, that sometimes ask me ‘Why do you want to reveal secrets? Do you think you are more intelligent than the people involved? Do you think you have the right to decide whether a secret should be published?’
Well, of course, I don’t claim to be more intelligent than anyone, but clearly the system protects itself from its own criminality. Secrets are the currency of power. The moment you know secrets, you can blackmail. The moment that you disrupt them, you disrupt the corrupt power.
Lucas Pretti: Journalists and whistleblowers against diplomatic plots between states, involving corruption, war, and influence peddling. Sounds like a movie script, but it’s what you live in your daily work. Is this not a David and Goliath fight? How to win these battles?
Stefania Maurizi: There’s one thing about this scene that I think is absolutely scandalous: that journalists have to spend hundreds of thousands of euros to litigate. Governments are obligated to comply with public information requests. But if they don’t, there’s no other way but to sue them. This is unreachable. Journalists don’t have money, and these people, governments, and corporations have billions. And the best opportunity to hire legal counsels.
They are aware of the asymmetry. While journalism work, especially independent journalism, is becoming more and more precarious.
In my FOIA case litigation in the US for Julian Assange, the legal cost reached $120,000 dollars. Fortunately, I was able to find lawyers willing to work pro bono. But who can afford $120,000 for a single litigating case? No one can do it.
Again, there is an absolute asymmetry between the power and the people who try to know about what our governments are doing. And we have the right to know. This battle is absolutely at the core of democracy. There’s no democracy without the right to know.