Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

What Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has to say about embargoes

with 2 comments

Wikileaks’ release of some 92,000 secret U.S. military documents on Afghanistan earlier today has the world abuzz. Wikileaks, for those of you who are unaware, has already made available a good deal of classified material, including, in April, a video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters staffers.

You won’t read details of those 92,000 documents on Afghanistan on Embargo Watch, because I haven’t reviewed them. For those details, I’ll leave you to my better-informed colleagues at news organizations.

But there is an embargo angle here. Before releasing the documents on their site today, Wikileaks gave them to three news organizations several weeks ago, according to this note from New York Times editors: the Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel.

In other words, Wikileaks gave the documents to three news organizations under embargo, a modified exclusive. And that is critical to open government group’s plan, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange told Computerworld last year.

The embargo period is a key part of the plan, Assange said. When Wikileaks releases material without writing its own story or finding people who will, it gains little attention.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

Julian’s dispassionate economic approach to the release of information isn’t limited to embargoes; he has also considered placing an actual financial value on material by selling it, according to a New Yorker profile of him that appeared last month:

On the principle that people won’t regard something as valuable unless they pay for it, he has tried selling documents at auction to news organizations; in 2008, he attempted this with seven thousand internal e-mails from the account of a former speechwriter for Hugo Chávez. The auction failed. He is thinking about setting up a subscription service, where high-paying members would have early access to leaks.

Two things to note here, one far less significant than the other. First, the far less significant: It is worth noting the superficial irony of the use of an embargo by a group dedicated to radical transparency. But I’ll admit that’s a bit of a cheap shot; there isn’t an inherent conflict between freedom of information and embargoes, if embargoes are done properly.

That brings me, however, to the second and far more important thing worth noting: Assange is stating the value of an embargo to the embargoing institution in plain terms, far more directly than the journals and scientific societies that show up on Embargo Watch regularly seem to be willing to do. Embargoes give the embargoing institution power. They ratchet up the interest in the material, and make it more likely that news organizations will cover it.

As I’ve said before, I have no problem with that. Self-interest is only human. But it has to be transparent, and it isn’t for journals and scientific societies that continue to justify their embargoes on grounds other than self-interest. Short embargoes and “freely available but embargoed” are just two versions of embargo policies that raise serious questions about the idea that embargoes are there to help journalists do their jobs better.

It apparently takes someone like Julian Assange to state the plain truth about who really benefits from embargoes.

The astute Embargo Watch reader — OK, all of you are astute — will have anticipated my kicker here, but Wikileaks could easily bring down the scientific embargo system if it wanted to, in collaboration with those who have access to that material, by posting embargoed material before the embargo lifted. I’m not suggesting this, and quite frankly scientific embargoes don’t even count as small potatoes when you consider what Wikileaks has leaked. But it’s a provocative thought nonetheless.

Hat tip to Colin Schultz, who forwarded me the 2009 Computerworld piece and suggested there was an embargo angle in it.


Written by Ivan Oransky

July 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Ivan, that’s a great analysis, and I’m glad you brought this issue up. You state, quite logically, that “Embargoes give the embargoing institution power.” That’s obviously true, but the flip side is equally important: journalists are the ones giving these institutions the power. As Julian said, if he simply dumped the information out there, it would have received very little coverage. Why is that? The value of the information should not depend on the manner it is released. As a PIO for a university, I see this all the time. A reporter will call concerning a study I featured in a news release. He or she will ask when the journal came out. If the answer is “last week,” there is suddenly no interest. The information in the study hasn’t changed since last week and, the public still doesn’t know about it. But somehow it is less valued now. I can nearly guarantee that a study of lesser value – but that is embargoed – will receive more coverage than a better study that was released last week. So while Julian may state “the plain truth about who really benefits from embargoes” I would argue that journalists must see some benefit from embargoes as well, or else these embargoes would no longer have the power to push coverage. Embargoes make it easier for some journalists (hopefully not many!), because they feel they no longer have to sift through the seemingly endless flow of journal articles — they only have to pay attention to those articles that have been embargoed.

    Jeff Grabmeier

    July 26, 2010 at 12:07 pm

  2. What a fab blog!

    As a general point, I think the more contentious the subject matter, the more problematic an embargo. This is because the embargo window provides a space within which the releaser of the information can spin the story to select recipients, and within this window the releaser has the additional leverage acquired from the recipient, who has often conceded ground in order to get the embargoed material. Often of course, the recipient has agreed not to test out the contents on anyone outside a charmed circle. All of this provides scope for the releaser to spin the story hugely, especially since the recipients often won’t know whether the story is contentious or not. And this perhaps is why generally there is no such thing as an embargo in politics, the most contentious of fields.

    So, in the Wikileaks case, we can point out that one aspect of the story has been huge and positive coverage of Wikileaks itself. This is exactly what many releasers want from their embargo.

    In theory you might think this not much of a problem for learned journals, after all the point of peer review is to say the paper is of acceptable quality. But the reality doesn’t always match the theory. In the MMR case for example, most of the damage was done not in the paper but in verbal briefings to journalists. Embargoes make it easier to impart that kind of spin.

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