This post is not (only) about Wikileaks—enough has been or is being written about it already. Rather, it’s about the bigger issue of freedom, specially freedom online, and about the power it gives to those who control it. Let’s start with a question (a seemingly obvious one, but apparently under noticed): why is it that Wikileaks, despite being the publisher, is being treated as if it were the leaker instead? As its charismatic founder, Julian Assange, has remarked, Wikileaks only published what was leaked by others, and wasn’t the only one at that either:
WikiLeaks is not the only publisher of the US embassy cables. Other media outlets, including Britain’s The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany have published the same redacted cables.
Yet it is WikiLeaks, as the co-ordinator of these other groups, that has copped the most vicious attacks and accusations from the US government and its acolytes. I have been accused of treason, even though I am an Australian, not a US, citizen. There have been dozens of serious calls in the US for me to be “taken out” by US special forces. Sarah Palin says I should be “hunted down like Osama bin Laden”, a Republican bill sits before the US Senate seeking to have me declared a “transnational threat” and disposed of accordingly. An adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister’s office has called on national television for me to be assassinated. An American blogger has called for my 20-year-old son, here in Australia, to be kidnapped and harmed for no other reason than to get at me.
I sum this up in one phrase: “overreaction due to fear”. I mean, imagine that the myriad of diplomatic cables was leaked without any help from Wikileaks, only through what you might call “regular” press. Would it even be conceivable to say about its editors-in-chief what was said about Assange above? Public officials calling on them to be murdered, on national TV? I think not.
What is it then, the cause of such harsh and desperate treatment of Wikileaks and Assange? In the article I quoted above, Assange himself offers an explanation:
Prime Minister Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media organisations. That is because The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small.
We are the underdogs. The Gillard government is trying to shoot the messenger because it doesn’t want the truth revealed, including information about its own diplomatic and political dealings.
Here I disagree, I think Assange is at least partially wrong. It’s not about being “the underdogs”, it’s because Wikileaks fundamentally changes the cost, risk and scale of whistleblowing. Which is A LOT more than any conventional news organization can say. From the point of view of those who most thrive on secrecy—the political establishment, corrupt organizations, repressive regimes, etc.—the emergence of anything the likes of Wikileaks, it is the worse news possible. They are scared shitless. And like a trapped animal, they are fighting in any way they can. They’re ultimately fighting for the survival of their power. As George Orwell put it, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Their overreaction is thus to be expected, as well as the shameless ad hominem attacks at Assange—after all, he is the personification of their biggest threat.
Wikileaks is not just a news publisher. It embodies the promise to fundamentally alter the power balance, giving it a long overdue tilt towards the people. And that why we, as a society, should nurture it. We have to live in a world where there will always exist a power differential, between the rulers and the ruled. The more open is the exercise of power by the former, the more accountable they become—with the corresponding benefits to the latter, which will always be the majority: those who are ruled. Democracies will be protected from the danger of becoming self-propagating oligarchies. But there is one very important question that we must answer: as Assange himself states in his TED interview, there are legitimate secrets. And there are illegitimate ones. Who, if anyone, should get to decide which is which? I do not have a good answer for this. But I reckon that if we must place that responsibility on anyone, then an organization whose entire funding depends on donations seems a particularly acceptable choice: in an indirect form, the people retain control; accountability for their actions is preserved.
EDIT: here’s what J. F. Kennedy had to say about secrecy (via Partido Pirata Português: