Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience

One of the things that has struck me most about Edward Snowden is how astute he seems to have been. Although he downloaded a lot of stuff, he seems to have been very discriminating in how he went about it. My reading of it is that he identified a number of practices that he thought/suspected were illegal/extra-legal/unconstitutional, then selected documents that would establish his case in each category, and downloaded those. And having done so, he seems to have been very canny in handling the subsequent media storm.

Now, more than six months on, people are beginning to see his modus operandi in a new light — as a template for new generations of whistleblowers. danah boyd has an interesting blog post about this, wondering whether whistleblowing might be the new Civil Disobedience.

People growing up with the internet understand that information is power. Those who’ve watched protests in recent years know that traditional physical civil disobedience doesn’t create the iconic narratives and images that it once did. And thus, not surprisingly, what it means to protest is changing. This is further complicated by an increased obsession with secrecy – secret courts, secret laws, secret practices – that make using the rule of law to serve as a check to power ineffective. Thus, questioning authority by leaking information that shows that power is being abused becomes a more valuable and notable form of civil disobedience. As with all forms of civil disobedience, there are significant consequences. But when secrecy is what’s being challenged, the biggest risk is not being beaten by a police officer for staging an event, but being disappeared or silenced by the institutions being challenged or embarrassed. And thus, as much as I hate to accept it, becoming a diplomatic incident is extraordinarily powerful not just for self-protection, but also as a way to make sure that the media doesn’t lose interest in the issues at play.