Friday, December 10, 2010

Julian Assange a Megalomaniac?

Julian Assange, the Australian founder and face of Wikileaks, is an anarchist ideologue, and the idea that an anarchist is writing the rules for information freedom for the internet ought to worry democracies.

This week’s cyber-attacks on PayPal, Visa and Mastercard ought to be sufficient evidence that Wikileaks poses a serious threat on three fronts.

The first, most spectacular and least dangerous, is that it energises hackers to attack businesses and government organisations. A group called “Anonymous” has initiated “Operation Payback” to shut down companies by flooding their servers with traffic. They have threatened other companies which have restricted Wikileaks’ finances at the request of US authorities. The hackers -- who are not members of Wikileaks -- chose their target well. Not only does this punish the lickspittle lackeys of the US government, it also demonstrates that anarchists can disrupt the world financial system.

In one of the most insightful comments on the threat posed by Wikileaks, Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, the author of a book to be published next month, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, told the Christian Science Monitor a few days before the cyber attacks:

It’s possible that if Assange is really treated badly and unjustly by the authorities – and possibly even tried like a “terrorist” as some prominent US politicians have suggested – this would nudge the movement toward violent forms of resistance. Given that many of these people are tech-literate and that more and more of our public infrastructure is digital, this could be a significant impediment to the growth of the global economy: Just think of the potential losses if Visa and MasterCard cannot process online payments because of some mysterious cyber-attacks on their servers.

No doubt stiffer policing of the internet and better security software will protect big corporations and governments. But what about smaller, poorer organisations?

The second danger is the harm to the reputation of US diplomacy. There are few surprises in the cables, especially for other governments. Is there really anyone who did not know that Silvio Berlusconi was a party-hearty guy with an eye for beautiful women? Is there anyone in Central Asia unaware that Nursultan Nazarbaev is a megalomaniac? But for the public in the countries mocked by the diplomats, these are deadly insults. The damage to the reputation of the US will take a long time to repair.

It will be impossible to repair the lives lost as a result of disclosures made by Wikileaks about Iraq and Afghanistan. The Taliban has been combing through the earlier cache of documents, looking for traitors and informants. Not that Assange cares. His comments in a long interview with the New Yorker earlier this year are chilling:

I asked Assange if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn them, but that there were also instances where the members of Wikileaks might get “blood on our hands.”

The most shameful thing is that major newspapers have been enthusiastically cooperating with this anarchist threat. Although the 250,000 US State Department cables are available on the Wikileaks website (currently at the world has been reading excerpts edited by the London Guardian, the New York Times, El Pais, in Spain, Le Monde, in France, and Der Spiegel, in Germany. Heedless of the consequences for the security of the US and its allies, the newspapers have published the juiciest tidbits. It’s hardly surprising that some skulduggery has come to light but is it sinister enough to justify the damage done?

Nor is it good journalism. Basically this represents the Twitterization of the news: salacious gossip, snippets of information taken out of context, characters without a plot. As US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, it’s like looking at a war through a soda straw. Assange has a convoluted anarchist theory to explain why he published the cables. But the newspapers? As Australian media analyst Jonathan Holmes says, “Their justification for printing many of these cables seems to me, in that case, to be just, well, that they're secret, and they're interesting because they're secret.”

US rage has been directed at Assange. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the leak as ““an attack against the international community”. Some politicians and pundits have even demanded his head on a platter. “We should treat Mr Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him,” writes columnist Jeffrey T Kuhner in the Washington Times. But Assange did not steal the documents. He merely published them. How is his role in the saga essentially different from the editors of the New York Times or the Guardian? They also have blood on their hands.

The third, and the most sinister, is the rise of information terrorism. Suicide bombers sent by Islamic terrorists can be foiled. Cyber-terrorists can be jailed. But information terrorism strikes at democracy itself.

Has it occurred to no one at the New York Times that if Julian Assange can publish government documents stamped “secret”, “confidential” and “Not for foreign eyes” with impunity, why can’t he publish X-ray images of naked airport travellers? Or the tax returns of all of the Times journalists? Or their daughters’ hidden Facebook pages? Or viewers of hard-core pornography on websites run by the Russian mafia?

In fact, information terrorism is already taking place in the US, even without the help of Wikileaks. The vitriolic debate over same-sex marriage in California highlighted this trend. The names of donors to Proposition 8 were made public. Many later complained that they suffered property destruction and threats. Perhaps, it could be argued, courage in asserting political convictions is the price of participating in a democracy. But what if confidential information about political opponents were posted on Wikileaks? Reputations would be ruined but it would be impossible to sue for defamation. Journalism and politics could be brought to a halt by the fear of blackmail.

A often-quoted internet slogan is that “information wants to be free”. Assange has turned this into a kind of metaphysical principle. Hiding information is the way governments have of oppressing people and keeping them in servitude. Leaking information destroys their monopoly power. According to the Wikileaks website:

When the risks of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.

But what about the right to privacy? Both institutions and persons also have a right to a domain of undisclosed information. There is a way of arbitrating this tension between transparency and privacy. In a democratic state it is called the law. But in the anarchic governance proposed by Assange, he alone is the arbiter of what is publishable and what is not.

What will happen if Julian Assange’s Wikileaks project is not shut down? Assange’s goals have a certain megalomaniac nobility -- changing the way the world is governed in order to empower “a people’s will to truth, love and self-realization”. But his competitors and imitators will be far less scrupulous than he is. Other sites are sure to spring up devoted to hosting politically-motivated leaks. After Oprah comes Jerry Springer. Do we really want to live in a world where hackers with the morality of Jerry Springer determine what we read in our morning newspaper?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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