Friday, December 24, 2010

The Assange Quandary: Wikileaks Under Fire

It's rapidly becoming the fight of our times, the crucial battle to define all future battles, the question that once answered will decide what future questions will be permitted. Is Wikileaks a terrorist organization with the purpose of harming world governments as its core mission? Or is Wikileaks a whistleblower's paradise, a large and well run website that funnels evidence of criminal wrongdoing into the public eye when no one else will touch it with a ten foot pole?

It may be easy enough to play devil's advocate and fight for the little guy (Assange) who is presently under attack by multiple governments and legal systems at the same time...not to mention the heretofore unheard of decision by various corporations to shut off routes for funding and donation for Wikileaks as well as Assange personally. My instincts always push me to root for the underdog, but the question of the hour is whether the underdog is worth rooting for.

More than personalities or state security, what is now at stake is decidedly larger than like or dislike of any one government or that governments actions. Much larger than the petty frauds of global corporations. Infinitely larger than the bruised egos of various players around the world. What is underway now is the fight to close off any future avenue by which information might move from the hands of the protected few, into the hands of the outraged many.

The ability to make an informed decision is the backbone of actual democracy. Take that away and all that is left is a gilded land of make believe where citizens make decisions they believe are right...never knowing that if the information they needed had been available to them...they might have chosen differently. Information is freedom, because it determines the faith one has in one's leaders, decides the course of action one sees as wise, and makes possible the best decisions when ignorance only breeds the worst.

Wikileaks, for all its faults, as well as Julian Assange, may be less than noble at heart and full of human errors and flaws...but the purpose they serve is larger than they are, more precious than they can ever hope to be. We are in the Information Age...and that name is no accident. The capacity to move data around the globe in seconds is the defining characteristic of our new era, and the debate over virtual rights and control of same has become the deciding question of our time.

We scoff at China's Great Firewall, or North Korea and Iran's attempts to clamp down on what is seen and heard and read and even spoken...but when the hard question is asked of will we respond? Is transparency worth its risks and price? Are we really better than the nations we scorn? Does inconvenient truth have greater value to us than to others?

In Australia, attempts to blacklist the worst extremes of pornography passed and became law...and it was universally agreed to be a good thing except by the shrillest voices at the fringe. Of course, after the fact we all look at the inclusion of political and religious sites among the blocked...and consider that an overuse of power by the Australian government. The temptation was too great...once some small group of persons was entrusted with the choice over what Aussies might be allowed to see or read on the internet, the censoring immediately spun out of control and moved far beyond what was agreed to at the outset.

The United Kingdom has bandied about a new anti-porn system, intended to make it necessary for people to 'opt in' if they wish to view pornography...but this has been poo-pooed as unwieldy and too difficult to implement...and even without such a law the surveillance state of England has already intruded into the personal lives of every citizen in the proclaimed fight against terror...even resulting in the recent case of a 12 year old being questioned by local police and accused of 'terrorism related activities' in advance of the public protest he planned to save a local youth building.

Control of internet access and the way in which it may be employed is a planet wide battle, a patchwork quilt of corporate lobbied notions and rights groups insistences, shifting to and fro depending on who wins the debate in what country. The U.S. Congress will likely be reviewing the FCC's latest compromise on net neutrality...if such a thing can be called neutrality when it surrenders most of the power to decide content to the largest players in the game.

Everywhere the battle is being fought, but depending on the information available to you, your position is subject to change. Imagine for the briefest of moments a world where someone wrote a script to be read in front of you, and that script was called your news, and that person who wrote it decided on your behalf what sides would be taken, what questions asked, what information revealed. That script constitutes all that you know of the world beyond your doors and your town and your political choices hinge on what that script tells you. That imagined world is entirely possible...that world is China, Iran, and North Korea.

So in the end, whether the underdog of the moment is an unworthy individual or group like Assange or Wikileaks as a whole, and whether I find fault with them personally, I stand absolutely and resolutely on the side of both genuine net neutrality and transparency by questionable means when necessary (since any legitimate means to achieve transparency are thwarted easily). It may be ugly, but it must be done, because the concept of an informed citizenry was and is rightly seen as necessary for the maintenance of a truly free society. Whether Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine would have agreed, I cannot say...but to me their principles apply just as well in an era of cathode ray tubes as they did in an era of hand printed pamphlets.

Hate them or love them, Assange and Wikileaks are the voice of future freedom, with all its entailed costs and curses. There is one other voice...and that voice is an droning Orwellian recording, repeating endless praises for the State and constant assurances that all is well. That is the voice that should be silenced, muffled, gagged and cut off once and for all. That is the voice of a future that no one would choose...if they were allowed to know they were choosing it.


  1. Interesting questions.

    Almost demands a thought experiment extrapolating out what the required constituency/governmental dynamic will have to be under such conditions of hyper transparency. Well, I hope 'hyper transparency' is the right word.

    This demands the attention of our generations finest novelists and satirists.

  2. One thing you said jumps out at me:

    Does inconvenient truth have greater value to us than to others?

    I think that information creates change. That is why the powers that be don't really like the internet being free.

    an open society does stand a better chance of weathering the information storm. A republic doesn't depend upon lies, but the Empire does. Truth sickens colonial powers at the same time it strengthens the people, the workers within those systems.

  3. Why do you say fighting for the little guy is playing devil's advocate? Isn't that the opposite of playing devil's advocate? Wouldn't fighting for a gigantic gang like the US be more like playing devil's advocate?

    You also mention that China, North Korea and Iran use censorship. You do know that the US has overthrown many democracies and installed dictators who have used censorship, right? That's not even mentioning all the already existing dictators that we support. I mean, just take Saudi Arabia, one of our biggest allies. That society is much worse than Iran. Why not mention that one? Why not mention the incredibly dubious system we have in the US?

    I agree with your conclusion that Wikileaks/Manning/Snowden/Ellsberg/whistle blowers in general are extremely positive, but to me it's a no brainer.