The Revolution Will Be Digitised

Whether this represents a revolution or something else, few would challenge the idea that we live in a new era in human history, one in which more people have more access to more information, and more quickly, than ever before. The deluge includes that which is licit as well as illicit. Parliamentary debates, United Nations resolutions and court decisions that would have taken weeks of diligent research to find are now available at the touch of a keypad. Once leaked, secret diplomatic cables, confidential legal opinions and dark records of rendition and torture are instantly readable in the raw. The implications are significant, for governmental deliberations, international negotiations and private transactions, for privacy and freedom of expression, for justice and security.

These developments are largely the consequence of two features of our modern, globalising world. The first is technological: documents, voices and images can be digitised, stored and communicated in unlimited quantities and at great speed. The second feature is legal, the happy export of US laws on freedom of information, giving rise to a presumption that documents generated by public authorities should be in the public domain unless decent reasons require otherwise.

This is the background that permeates Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will Be Digitised, a lively journey around some of the characters and debates that regularly make headlines. She is especially well placed to pierce the veil – as a fearlessly independent investigative journalist who won’t take no for an answer, she has an ability to gain access to nooks and crannies that many do not even imagine to exist. Her efforts to uncover the expense claims of British parliamentarians caused justifiable mayhem for a few months, resulting in criminal investigation and convictions, and a revamp of the expenses system. Whether it leads to any real change of political culture remains to be seen.

Brooke has also been closely connected to even more momentous developments: the releases by WikiLeaks of videos and diplomatic cables that caused such huge embarrassment to so many governments by exposing lies and double standards, and also contributed to political changes, including the Arab Spring. Many of the key players – from the worlds of hacking, government and Google – are here portrayed, without flattery, deference or cant.

Brooke has a burning commitment and an agenda but starry-eyed she is not. Nor is she reluctant to put the boot into the biggest and most powerful of the new players who increasingly have access to – and control over – flows of information, reminding that these days the greatest sucking sound is that of information power flowing from the state to large corporations. Google, she wryly points out, invites visitors to its Californian HQ to sign a non-disclosure agreement; decline to do so, and your access will be limited.

One character runs through this book – Julian Assange. Not unreasonably, given his apparent commitment to the causes that allow her to ply her trade, her initial impressions seem positive. By the book’s end, however, the disillusion is almost total. It’s not just the actions that disappoint but the underlying personality. She includes a number of his flirtatious, cringe-making e-mails. “I will have you Heather,” he writes, inviting her to join him in being “messiahs to generation WHY, not a bunch of aging hacks”. These documents go some way in explaining Assange’s motives. “Will you be my Mary Magdalene,” he writes on another occasion, “and bathe my feet at the cross?”

These personal insights are significant, in going to motive and trust. We’d all agree that some documents – or at least parts of some documents – should not be made public. Even Assange recently said he believed that: when I interviewed him at the Hay Festival earlier this year he stunned the audience by suggesting that there were circumstances in which he might seek a super-injunction from the English courts to protect his sources. To the follow-up question – why are you entitled to protect your sources but the US is not? – he could provide no decent answer. There is none.

One could have quibbles about the structure of this book, which gives the impression of having been put together hastily, without a clear narrative spine. But its contribution is significant, and readably so, precisely because it helps get to grips with the personalities driving the issues. Brooke is no mere raconteur: she has a serious agenda and she poses serious questions, particularly in the closing pages. She is right to be concerned about claims of national security, which she believes is becoming the “new word of God to which all must submit in blind obedience”. This is now a real problem in the US, with the Bush and Obama administrations arguing – all too successfully – that the courts should not be involved at all in cases that raise national security issues. And she is right to alert us to the dangers that governments will turn to international rules to stifle justified freedom of expression, as they recognise their impotence to enforce national laws. We have been warned.

Philippe Sands QC is a professor of law at University College London. A new edition of his book ‘Lawless World’ will be published next year by Penguin

The Revolution Will Be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War, by Heather Brooke, William Heinemann, RRP£12.99, 251 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.