Secrets and rumours

10 October 2005

Having gone over Jeff Jarvis's column in Media Guardian twice I'm still having trouble making sense of it. I think I've got to the bottom of it: his definition of the word secret is different to that of most other people. And it changes halfway through.

First, Jarvis tells us that the Internet is changing the nature of secrets. How so? Does the Internet apply some form of quantum nuttiness that makes secrets somehow not secrets anymore? I doubt that. I think he means that the ease of publishing on the Internet makes it easier to disclose things that in a paper-dominated world would remain secret or at least obscure. Apparently, "the web explodes our view of truth like a kernel of popcorn: it has given birth to a culture of transparency". I would question that. It has given birth to a culture of mass-publishing. Transparency? Yet to be demonstrated long-term. Job applicants are already finding that transparency is providing would-be employers with too much information.

However, it's the next sentence that had me scratching my head and wondering whether I had suffered a blow to the head that made my internal dictionary no longer match up with the rest of the world: the Internet "also allows citizens to say what they want without saying who they are - yes, to keep secrets". Erm...would that not make such things no longer secrets but...rumours? Keeping secrets involves not telling people things. Disclosing things anonymously does not maintain their secret status and also remains a long way from maintaining transparency.

He then starts writing about Judith Miller of the New York Times who was locked up for 85 days for trying to make it possible for someone to disclose something without saying who they are. For Jarvis, keeping the secret of the source's identity broke some unwritten rule of true journalism: "She did not immediately reveal the full story to her public - and shouldn't that be a reporter's gravest sin?" People are questioning why Miller did not go public with the source's name when the source apparently waived the privilege of anonymity a while ago. But Jarvis wants full disclosure immediately. If a journalist agrees to keep something "off the record" or "on background", that's a sin. He conveniently ignores the realpolitik of hackdom that means to get information sometimes you have to cut deals. "Off the record" is nothing more than a verbal agreement. It carries no legal weight, just an expression of some level of trust between two people. Lots of people tell hacks things off the record that are worthless as secrets or public information but, with some sources, you are going to agree and continue to agree to their anonymity because that gets you other stories that check out.

To look at Jarvis's statement on the beauty of anonymity on the Web, were the source to publish a one-time secret on as an unnamed citizen, I can only conclude that would be OK with him (and not a sin). To tell a journalist, any source would be at risk of full disclosure in Jarvis's perfect, transparent world because anything else would be a sin.

Jarvis writes that if a future Deep Throat wants to reveal a secret without fear of being caught, they can blog anonymously or just post it on a forum. In a practical sense, that is probably a safe bet given today's state of surveillance law and technology. I wouldn't bet on those loopholes being around in the future. And how much would such a Deep Throat have to post to prevent the information being seen as no more than the rantings of a wacko, a bunch of unreliable rumours? At some point, their identity becomes extremely difficult to hide because of the amount of evidence they need to provide to back up their position if they want to be taken seriously.