Free Information

CNN reports that “whistle-blowing” Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer handed the banking information of two thousand clients over to WikiLeaks.  The website says it will be able to “process” and release this information in “a matter of weeks.”  Elmer is facing charges for violating Swiss banking secrecy regulations.

Elmer describes himself as an “activist/reformer/banker” who decided the Swiss banking system was “damaging our society in the way money was moved.”  He’s never been able to get government authorities or universities interested in the data he pilfered from the banks, so he hit on the idea of handing it over to WikiLeaks.

Once again, we see a lone “activist” violating the property and privacy rights of many others, in the belief his wisdom transcends the judgment of those he could never convince to act upon his stolen data.  I’m second to none in my criticism of hidebound government bureaucracies… but where, exactly, do the Swiss go to vote against Rudolf Elmer or WikiLeaks, if they disagree with their notions of secrecy or transparency?

Are we supposed to believe that all 2000 of the accounts Elmer gave WikiLeaks belong to evil villains conspiring to dominate the world?  Don’t they “own” their banking data, and therefore have some right to decide how it would be disseminated?

The hacker battle cry of “free” information reflects either ignorance of value and ownership, or active hostility to those concepts.  Of course information has value, and it is directly related to how accessible the data is.  Content providers, such as authors and musicians, make their living by selling access to data they have created.  If the data is made completely available to everyone, without restriction, the incentive to create such content is removed.  It’s the equivalent of informing classical painters that their canvases will be immediately seized and placed on display in public parks, without compensation.  Who will invest the effort necessary to hone the talent of a Matisse or Van Gogh under such rules?

Commerce relies upon the value of secrecy.  The people WikiLeaks is preparing to ruin had a reasonable expectation that their confidentiality would be respected.  No banking system, research and development effort, or marketing strategy could operate without secrecy.  The formula for a new product is unquestionably valuable.  If it cannot be kept secret, its value is destroyed… and so is the incentive to create such a complex formula.  If all information must be free, then none of it has value, and that is a strategy for the creation of poverty.

A while back, there were news stories remarking that Robert Mugabe, the strongman who ruined Zimbabwe, was not much troubled by WikiLeaks revelations that should have embarrassed his government.  In fact, the WikiLeaks scandal strengthened his position, because he was able to use the leaks to hunt down his enemies.  Leaving aside the general WikiLeaks lack of interest for going after bad guys, this shows how the value of information ultimate correlates with true freedom.  An authoritarian State can be hurt by espionage which captures military information, but it cannot be “embarrassed”… but the revelation of private data can be fatal to an opposition which must operate in secret.  It is, always, the “good guys” who have the greatest need for privacy.

The private ownership of information allows the creation of wealth through the commercial exchange of ideas.  The WikiLeaks crusade would annihilate that wealth, if carried to its logical conclusion.  It will be one more painful reminder that the poor are not raised up through the destruction of riches.