Julian Assange: Cyber Anarchist or Activist?
It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? After a long publicity hiatus, brought on by his self-imposed exile inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange has found his way back into the headlines.
Whistleblowing has been growing in influence since the 1970s. Yet over the past decade or more, Mr Assange and the Wikileaks organisation he founded, have turned whistleblowing into something akin to a career choice for some young adults.
Wikileaks became famous - or infamous, depending on your worldview - for providing an unprecedented platform for people who wanted to leak sensitive secrets. Their work was glamorised by the publicity Wikileaks generated.
Some commentators argue that Julian Assange and his colleagues are champions of free speech. Others see them as defenders of press freedom. Still others claim that the Wikileaks crew are making a stand in support of the true culture of the internet and the world wide web.
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, or publish. Acclaiming individual rights without recognising concomitant social responsibilities is the beginning of anarchism.
This has been one of the arguments - a persuasive one, I think - for tighter regulation of social media companies. They want the freedom to operate as news curators, while retaining a free-wheeling cowboy status when it comes to responsibility for the content of their sites. They cannot be allowed to have their proverbial profit cake while happily scoffing it down.
In the case of online publishing houses like Wikileaks, publication of material is accompanied by claims to moral authority. This is arguably the highest form of authority. To make a credible claim to it, publishers must be seen to be above reproach. This means, among other things, that they must allow themselves to be measured by some yardstick beyond their own collective conscience
Julian Assange and his crew have demonstrated no accountability except to their own internal culture and their individual consciences. In this they have diluted any potential authority as a voice for free speech among the wider population, most members of which live not so much in subservience to but with respect for social structures.
Wikileaks also likes to challenge systems of governance without offering any suggestions as to how they might be improved. It attacks not just abuses of the system - as was the case during Watergate, for example - but the system itself.
In this it has possibly revealed itself to be more about cyber-anarchism than cyber-activism. Activists like to promote an alternative, improved view of society. Anarchists take no such pains; they seem more content to undermine the current system and hope that something better emerges after the revolution.
As for Mr. Assange’s seeming advocacy for freedom of the press, there are once more reasons to be cautious. Wikileaks says that it is a clearing house for raw data provided by whistleblowers. Then, when it suits its purpose, it claims instead to be a journalistic body, which implies the presence of rigorous fact-checking and some sort of recognised editorial oversight.
For much of its life, Wikileaks has been staffed mostly by non-journalists. Though many journalists would see it as a source of juicy source material, they might not recognize it as a legitimate organ of the press.
Julian Assange took to calling himself a journalist a few years ago. His spokespersons were throwing this epithet his way again today, as they spoke out against his arrest.
In the beginning, the Wikileaks co-founder may have found the journalist label useful in establishing credibility. “Computer hacker” doesn’t carry the same weight, after all, In recent years, Assange has used his aspirations to journalism as political coverage against espionage charges in the US, where freedom of the press is held in almost sacred regard.
Yet he seems ignorant of the fact that one key tenet of journalism is that reporters should never allow themselves to become the story.
In reporting Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein and their editor Ben Bradlee were openly opposed by powerful forces of government. Yet to the end, the story about Watergate remained just that. The story-tellers did not create a plinth for themselves at its core.
Mr. Assange seems either incapable of this type of self-effacement or unwilling to attempt it. He doesn’t seem to mind being the centre of attention, even if his profile or reputation are damaging to the cause.
For all of this, there are those who see the Wikileaks volunteers as the last true defenders of internet freedoms.
The original web pioneers, hovering over dim, blinking screens, saw the online world they were creating as a frontier where ideas would roam free. They foresaw a realm where people could exchange data and converse without interference from the tinkling of commercial cash registers or the meddling of lawyers and politicians.
Now, as news organisations increasingly erect online paywalls and one-person cyber-jockeys cash in on clickbait advertising, purists see Wikileaks as a body of crusaders for original web culture.
Yet its most ardent supporters either can’t see or won’t acknowledge that by their actions groups like Wikileaks make the case for even higher levels of government internet regulation. This would be supported by many groups outside of government, including businesses who fear that Wikileaks and its kind may turn on them next.
What would happen if a Wikileaks-inspired body decided to share proprietary information online, or to publish the secret conversations held at corporate board meetings? Wikileaks has, in the past, openly threatening to do so with regard to certain banks.
The business world, under threat, would fight back – by lobbying government for control of the internet.
Spouting largely unprocessed, proprietary or government material freely into cyberspace, where national governments have traditionally had limited authority, also makes the argument for mechanisms of global governance.
If Wikileaks, or whatever follows it, becomes so threatening to governments that they look to establish supra-national governing bodies to deal with it, even more secrecy will result. And this time, it will happen at a level of government unprecedented in human history.
For some, this kind of transnational government may sound innocuous or even desirable, but new strata of government always lead to greater controls upon the citizenry, usually in the name of security or harmonisation. They also bring with them higher taxes, because new layers of government require even bigger layers of bureaucracy.
And the higher the level of government, the greater the power. With more power comes more deal-making behind closed doors - and greater levels of resource devoted to protecting secrets.
Some will argue that in an ideal world publishing secrets would not be a crime, especially if those secrets reveal flaws in the processes or personalities behind power structures. Yet in an ideal world, secrets would not be needed at all.
In the real world we have now, populated as it is by sometimes noble and altruistic, sometimes myopic and self-interested human beings, the idea of governments having secrets may sound mirky, but it is a necessary part of negotiation processes and national defence.
Julian Assange may see himself as a noble activist. His record suggests that, whatever his deepest motivations, he fits more readily under the anarchist banner, because he offers no workable alternative to the status quo he loathes.