Mission expose

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 03, 2010 19:21 hrs

The big boys of US banks aren’t sleeping well. They have been tossing and turning so much, they’re losing weight. One bunch, Bank of America in particular, is more restless than the rest. Meanwhile, Julian Assange, Australian mathematical genius and computer hacker — the new Internet-world James Bond — is somewhere on Phi Phi, sipping a martini. He is having the last snigger, as he uploads data onto his website, Wikileaks — a nonprofit organisation that claims it’s funded by human rights campaigners, journalists and the public, and promotes information leaks to fight corruption — of the state and corporations.

Wikileaks’ mission exposé has moved from international diplomacy to the heart and centre of commerce in the world — big US banks. The reason several bankers can’t get shut eye. Assange has warned his next big leak is going to be on a big US bank — we just don’t know which one, though the bet is on Bank of America. But it could be anyone, because in a recent interview to Forbes Assange also claimed that 50 per cent of the documents held by his whistleblower site are on companies.

In the last few days, everything from the infamous Radia tapes in India to Wikileaks in the international arena has shaken assumptions of how nations are run, mediations take place, who the unlikely coaxers are, what’s a private conversation and what’s not.

Aside of the backroom politics at play, the unveiling of documents and conversations is fashioning something quite extraordinary and permanent. The power of the Web to coax a change in human behaviour, especially when it risks exposure. This is technology at its disruptive best. In today’s world, negotiations, insinuations and power play happen over an email, phone conversation or a BlackBerry. By stripping all of that naked, and uncloaking it in full public view, organisations such as Wikileaks and other web sites will force those in power to rethink how they communicate and how they wish to be projected. At the very least, it will make them careful communicators.

At its best, it will be the equivalent of an undiluted Volcker rule in the financial markets, that’s supposed to tame greed and excessive risk-taking in the ambitious few, who are always in charge. In short, it will keep them on the straight and narrow. While many will argue that it is hard to change human nature and tame greed and power, it’s also true that people act deviously mostly because they suspect they will never be found out. And so, will never face the consequences.

Wikileaks and other such mediums, though, provide the perfect opportunity for hundreds of thousands to whistle blow, with few punitive consequences as of now, but with the greater reward of overall good or the narrow window of sweet revenge. And that’s where this sword gets a sharp edge. The big test will be society’s ability to ostracise the guilty enough to make this a mass disincentive tool, with much the same ability to sieve out victims of acrimony who need to be protected.

The Internet is a more in-the-face measure of public outrage than any we have seen and so its effectiveness to coerce action on those exposed will also be far more. The resultant name and shame process, and a possible loss of power is such an age old disincentive that it should work.

Of course, some may say that we will take our negotiations and conversations away from what can be tracked, to the simple nod and handshake. Trouble is, markers such as emails and recorded communications have become a safety net. Modern workers hoard emails for a rainy day — it’s the only surety in today’s work life. So there is little doubt that the new knowledge and character god will sit somewhere on a browser.

In the meantime, I want to know if Assange likes his martini, shaken or stirred?

(Anjana Menon is executive editor, NDTV Profit. Views expressed here are personal)