Is Julian Assange Damaging the Internet?
There is doubtless an important and wide-ranging debate to be had about the relationship between governance and transparency in the age of almost ubiquitous digital media.
Liberal democracies, for example, while preaching transparency struggle more than ever in the digital age to balance public accountability with diplomatic discretion.
Diplomacy, so long practiced behind closed doors, now depends upon digital communications technologies. Yet these are the very tools which make it susceptible to intense outside scrutiny, not all of which is desirable and some of which may even be potentially dangerous.
While members of government have become as reliant as the rest of us on hi-tech gadgetry, the ubiquity of digital tools and their propensity for being hacked represents a threat to the ability of government institutions to keep secrets. In the world of realpolitik, keeping secrets is an important part of diplomacy and security - and not all secrets are bad secrets.
However, such a debate, whenever it takes place, must not be allowed to centre around the interests only of specific individuals.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, the part of the internet that makes it useful to we mere mortals as opposed to tech boffins, tweeted from the stage at the opening of London's Olympics: 'This is for everyone'. He referred to the Games, of course, but this was also a nod also to the medium he popularized.
The internet is for and about everyone.
This, it appears, may not have occurred to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and self-proclaimed activist for internet freedoms. He seems perfectly happy to have debates about internet freedoms centre around himself and his somewhat erratic behaviour.
In the process, he poses a potential threat, at least where some governments are concerned, to the very medium he uses to promote his brand of reform.
When the Messenger Hurts the Medium
Listening on Sunday to Mr Assange's speech from a low-level balcony at the Ecuadorean embassy here in London, I was immediately struck by two things.
First, by how readily he conflates the interests of WikiLeaks with his own. In his mind, it seems, the group he leads is synonymous with himself; his interests are the group's interests.
Then, in his rush to denounce any challenge to his own essential nobility and the self-evident rightness of his cause, he misrepresented the cause of his present troubles. He apparently sincerely believes that they provide evidence of a vast conspiracy to silence his lone, reformist voice.
His short speech featured demands that the USA abandon its persecution of WikiLeaks and the "whistleblowers" who have fed the group documents for publication.
Yet he made no mention of the allegations which brought him to this situation.
What on earth does the work of US whistleblowers have to do with allegations of sexual abuse filed in Sweden? And how do allegations made about the personal behaviour of the Wikileaks leader existentially threaten the organisation itself - unless Wikileaks is just an extension of the Assange ego?
Doubtless, US governments have at times been involved in nefarious practices at home and abroad and US authorities may well want Julian Assange to answer for broadcasting their private communications to the world.
Yet, as Carl Bildt the Swedish Foreign Minister pointed out on BBC Radio, the Swedes have never shown an inclination to kowtow to US demands.
He added that Sweden has an excellent record in defending human rights and that the UK has much more of a claim to being a special friend of America than does Sweden.
So why, he asked, would Mr Assange rather stay in the UK than in Sweden?
Mr Assange casts himself as the noble knight fighting for a new level of political accountability in high places.
Yet by turning the story of his somewhat confusing struggle with the Swedish and British authorities into a paean to his own paranoia, Mr Assange may be doing a great disservice to the medium he uses to promote his brand of activism.
In the developed world, the web is recognised as perhaps our only truly universal or classless communications medium. It is not the exclusive domain of media moguls, boffins, members of the industrial-military complex or politicos who might use it to nudge public opinion in whatever direction they please.
The growth of the internet has brought with it enormous benefits for societies and for the global community as a whole. The world wide web has transformed it into the communication, entertainment and commercial juggernaut it is today.
The Cloud, a layer of interconnected nodes added to the web, now offers unprecedented opportunities for mass collaboration in science, manufacturing, education, activism and much more.
It will also eventually bring huge savings in internet and computer costs. Forbes magazine predicts a drop of up to 90 percent in the next few years.
The Cloud also provides the platform for an 'internet of things'. Billions of tiny, sensor-driven machines will soon be built into everything from the food packaging in our refrigerators to our clothing, all sending and receiving information to and from the internet.
Meanwhile, commerce is digitizing at a rapid rate. Even bricks-and-mortar shops are replacing traditional credit card services with the wave-and-pay variety and options for payment-enabled smartphones.
The internet is for everyone and therein lies its beauty and utility, but also its potential danger for governments.
Of the People, For the People?
There are governments aplenty who worry about the growth and pervasiveness of the internet. Some of them would like nothing more than to curb or control its power.
The OpenNet Initiative is an alliance of academic and consultancy bodies set up to investigate internet filtering and surveillance powers worldwide. In 2010 it documented Internet filtering by governments in over 40 countries worldwide.
The Initiative ranks Iran's as the worst government when it comes to using pervasive filters to block online political and social content as well as personal communications tools.
After Iran comes China, where a police service devoted to filtering the web reportedly consists of at least 30,000 officers.
On April 12 of this year, Chinese web users were temporarily cut off from all foreign websites in what some experts saw as a government reconfiguration of the so-called Great Firewall of China. Amnesty International says that China has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents.
Meanwhile, in July the Russian parliament introduced bills that create a blacklist of websites deemed unsuitable. The bills, which will become law in November, demand that servers to take these sites down.
The Russian-speaking version of Wikipedia closed for a day just before the bills were introduced. Its home page simply read: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”
In the beginning, the Russian laws will deal mainly with sites carrying images of child abuse and other overtly illegal material. However, dissidents fear that the legislation will soon extend to ban or curtail political criticism.
Given the Putin government's heavy-handed response to the Pussy Riot incident their fears do not seem far-fetched.
It is not just recognisably repressive governments that seem inclined to increase their control of the web.
In the USA, concerns have been raised about the growth of what the New York Times calls the Great Firewall of America.
Late last year, bills were introduced into both the Senate and the House of Representatives which would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of websites.
Internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, payment providers and advertising networks would then be required to block these sites, without recourse to court hearings or other due legal processes.
What's more, the same proposals allowed for private companies to sue ISPs for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes copyright - even though most ISPs don't control the websites they host.
In the UK, similar proposals were considered in the latter years of the Labour government. They would have given wide powers of web censorship to an unelected government minister, Peter Mandelson.
Thankfully, larger, private ISPs in the UK have now provided their own filtering mechanisms. For example, BT uses a service known as Cleanfeed which identifies sites featuring child pornography. At present the UK is rated as being relatively free of government internet filtering, though of course there are ongoing debates about the need for tighter filtering to protect children.
As the internet becomes woven into more and more of our daily experience, people are coming to see access as a basic right.
Between November 2009 and February 2010, the BBC World Service conducted a poll among more than 27,000 adults in 26 countries, including 14,000 internet users. Of the results, the chairman of the polling agency said: “Despite worries about privacy and fraud, people around the world see access to the internet as their fundamental right. They think the web is a force for good, and most don’t want governments to regulate it.”
So if Mr Assange is concerned about the potential of governments to clamp down on internet freedoms, he is right to be so. He may, however, be indirectly giving them a pretext for doing so.
Activism or Anarchism?
Even within some liberal democratic governments, there remains a lingering suspicion that at the very core of internet culture, among those who shape it most, there are a group of cowboy individualists who lean more toward anarchism than activism.
Therefore, the thinking goes, whilst the internet is a helpful mechanism for entertainment and communication among the masses, it is fundamentally not to be trusted within power structures.
The charge of cyber-anarchism is one that some government leaders level at Julian Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks - with some justification.
His supporters argue that he and his colleagues are champions of free speech. Some claim that they are defenders of press freedoms or brave advocates of the true culture of the internet. There are good reasons to be wary of all three arguments.
In any society, true freedom of speech requires that citizens take responsibility for what they say. Acclaiming individual rights without recognising concomitant social responsibilities is the beginning of anarchism.
What's more, when the authority you claim is of the moral variety, you must be seen to be above reproach. This requires that you allow yourself to be measured by some standard beyond yourself.
The WikiLeaks crew have demonstrated very little answerability except to their own internal culture and their individual consciences. In the present situation, it is not hard to see where they derived this taste for non-accountability.
As for their claims about crusading journalism, WikiLeaks has long presented itself as a clearing house for raw data provided by their whistleblowers. (Some might less charitably call them spies.) It takes on the journalistic mantle only when it suits its purpose - or the needs of Mr Assange.
Being seen as a journalistic body implies the presence of fact-checking mechanisms and some sort of recognised editorial oversight, neither of which are in place at WikiLeaks. It usually tries to disseminate raw data only - and as quickly, with as little editing, as possible.
Mr Assange and WikiLeaks have shown that whilst they're quick to demand that systems of governance should change in all manner of ways, they're usually loath - or unable - to specify what form those changes should take.
Activism is motivated by a clear and distinctive vision of the preferred future - usually, in one particular area of need. It takes the cards it has been dealt and strategically looks for ways to maximize their potential, in bringing about clear goals and specific changes.
Anarchism, on the other hand, throws the cards in the air, not knowing or much caring where they land, as long as the result differs from the status quo. Mr Assange seems to lean more toward the latter.
The sheer volume of the papers he and WikiLeaks have published online and the breadth of the subjects they cover, reveal a lack of any core, pragmatic goal on their part.
A body of true activists would take one or two areas of concern, set out an apologetic and strategy for change, and then seek to convince others about the rightness of the cause through the force of argument and moral example.
WikiLeaks simply pushes out screeds of data, like so many poorly-made sausages from a machine. There's no specific, strategic goal as to what needs to change first and what type of action is needed to promote that change.
And there's little opportunity for everyday people to buy into the process or join the cause in any way aside from giving money. It seems to revolve around Julian Assange and a few others sitting at their computers, largely doing as they see fit.
All of this is useful fodder for political bodies that would like to exercise greater control over our internet use.
Regulation not Repression
Of course, a certain level of regulation is vital to security, the maintenance of order and social cohesion. As more of our offline lives take on an online component, the internet needs to be subject to laws that promote accepted standards of decency and propriety.
Regulation must protect us from the unscrupulous use of the web in ways that invade what little privacy we have left, or turn our screen-fitted gadgets into invasive advertising billboards.
Already, marketers can discover our buying preferences through social networking sites. They can learn about our spending patterns via mobile phone payments. They can even track our movements using phone satnav apps - and use the information to predict likely future movements. This is all very convenient when it comes to pitching products and services.
The most important internet laws will be those dealing with the protection of minors and the prevention of crimes such as fraud, money laundering, terrorism and abuses of patent law.
Without regulation, the internet takes on the culture of the wild west and it's every man for himself.
Yet if governments get too heavy-handed or reactionary in their approach, people will begin to practice excessive degrees of self-censorship motivated by fear. This is not the same thing as acting with self-discipline, with willing respect for social structures and ethical norms.
Fearful self-censorship stifles innovation because it causes us to hold back on sharing potentially helpful ideas.
The internet offers a rare place for us to take healthy risks, reaching out of our comfort zones to engage with people and concepts we might not otherwise encounter.
Julian Assange has, it seems, been aware of the potential of the internet since he was a boy. As an early adopter, he recognised that it would become a pervasive part of the human experience.
The internet has allowed him - for better or worse - to come to a place of prominence in society.
If he can now look beyond his own immediate concerns, perhaps he will see that by his erratic behaviour, self-serving rhetoric and unattractive grandstanding, he is merely adding wood to the fire for those who oppose internet freedoms.
Not only have the actions of WikiLeaks suggested that the internet is an enemy of the state and therefore something governments must tightly controlled wherever possible. As a power broker in the internet world, Mr Assange’s personal behaviour, unstable as it is, potentially makes the internet seem a more ramshackle, Wild West entity than it really is and one that either now or in the near future may be in need of government control.
Of course, Julian Assange is not directly responsible for the way some governments are try to curb internet freedoms. But he certainly isn't helping the netizens' cause.