Saturday, December 18, 2010

wikileaks - the idea and the man

Guardian | It is nearly three weeks since the Guardian and a handful of other news organisations began publishing stories and selected US state department cables based on the 250,000 documents passed to WikiLeaks. In that time the world has changed in a number of interesting ways. Millions of people around the world have glimpsed truths about their rulers and governments that had previously been hidden, or merely suspected.

Hackers' revenge
The cables have revealed wrongdoing, war crimes, corruption, hypocrisy, greed, espionage, double-dealing and the cynical exercise of power on a wondrous scale. We feel some sympathy with the poster on a Guardian comment thread this week who complained of Wiki-fatigue. The revelations have flowed at such a rate that it may be months, or even years, before the full impact of what has been disclosed can be fully absorbed. It is all too easy to feel defeated by the sheer scale of the blurred torrent of information unleashed on the world.

During these three weeks the man who kicked this particular hornet's nest, Julian Assange, has been arrested, jailed and freed. Hackers have taken revenge on huge corporations accused of aiding those who would dearly like to choke off the organisation he founded and runs. The US government has announced a thoroughgoing review of the principles on which it shares the intelligence it collects. The porous nature of the digital world has been driven home to those in charge of international businesses, banks, armies, governments – and even news and gossip websites. The implications for large state databases are as yet unknown. And now Assange is promising to speed up the release of the documents and to scatter them more broadly around the world.

Though the global implications of what has happened are far reaching, there is an inevitable sense in which the story is, indeed, being reduced to a biopic – the life and times of Julian Assange. In some ways this is a fair representation of events, but it is also limiting, and highly diversionary. There is no question that Assange has a missionary zeal, technical skill and high intelligence, without which the whole WikiLeaks project would never have gained its present prominence and/or notoriety.

In last Sunday's Observer Henry Porter compared him to the 18th-century libertine, John Wilkes. Wilkes is remembered now as the fearless publisher, editor and politician who fought crucial skirmishes in the journey towards a free press in Britain. He risked exile, imprisonment and death for the right to publish – including the proceedings of parliament. But in his own times he was also regarded as a rake. One biographer has noted how "the reports of his sexual liaisons – both factual and fictitious – leaked from the private realm to fuel the hectic debate over his qualities as a public man".

The parallels with Assange are hard to ignore. He found himself in Wandsworth prison, not for breaches of the Espionage Act, but because he is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sex offences relating to two women he met earlier this year. To many (though doubtless not to the women) this is a side show to the main event. To others – including Assange and his legal team (who have disparagingly referred to the events as a "honeytrap") – this is a dark conspiracy to frame him, in much the same way that Al Capone was put out of circulation for tax offences.