The international drama circling the WikiLeaks story compels me to visit the issue. At first, I didn’t give much thought to the matter. After all, in our information saturated world, what is one more media platform anyway? Well, the issue cannot be ignored any longer given the precedent it could set for the way governments treat online publications of content that they may consider injurious to their personal interests.
So what exactly is this WikiLeaks issue and why has it grabbed global attention?
If you have ever heard about Wikipedia and its phenomenal online success, you’d be grateful for open source. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is slightly different from other kinds of encyclopedia. Whereas a group of people come together, compile and then publish other regular encyclopedia (of course retaining all the rights to their content), Wikipedia is markedly different. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is formed by the vast collaboration of the global public in compiling and vetting the content. It is more popular than traditional encyclopedia because of: 1) its vast global reach in being able to reach people of many languages, 2) its availability for editing incorrect or perhaps non-substantive information, and 3) its incredibly vast informational database. All thanks to open source. There are a number of websites that work the same way or with the same wiki or user-generated functionality—WikiLeaks is one of them.
WikiLeaks is a site which publishes anonymously delivered and often secret government cables or memos to the public. These are usually sensitive and perhaps classified documents which offer some insight into proposed or implemented policies of several governments. One can ostensibly imagine that the revelations that come from WikiLeaks can and often do go at variance with the public representations of elected officials. In an age marked by its remarkably quick and global dissemination of information, you can see why WikiLeaks has gripped the global public and perhaps generated consternation amongst government figures. Suddenly, as has not been possible before, the oft-misinformed public can get that rare glimpse into the machinations of theirs and others’ governments. When the global public does come into contact with these revelations—barring those living in a country with government-imposed sanctions on some internet content or repressive regimes—there is usually a flurry of political activity expressing some public outcry at the dissembling tactics of government bureaucrats.
The US government, it has to be noted, feels especially threatened by the release of hundreds if not thousands of US government cables. In the minds of certain political power players, Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of this internet-based activist group, should be condemned as a terrorist for releasing these documents online. Apparently, it may not have dawned on some of these officials that there are millions of Americans who do not cherish the idea that they may not have had an accurate picture of their government’s activities on a local and foreign scale. Similarly other governments are expressing concern if not rage at the fact that their private dealings have become fodder for public consumption.
I am no conspiracy theorist—but why is WikiLeaks suddenly the victim of vicious and sustained cyber attack designed to shut it down or at least make the access to the information they contain insufferably difficult? Amazon has bowed to government pressure and is no longer hosting the website. WikiLeaks then went to the UK, but the hosts have also caved to pressure whether cyber-based or political. Then it went to Switzerland, but I think they are also experiencing that massive denial-of-service attack. Moreover there is also a Europe-wide manhunt for Julian Assange on some sexual misconduct charges. I don’t know how real these charges are but I think it is somewhat convenient that these charges are now making the rounds with increasing ferocity at this time when some governments have deemed the actions of WikiLeaks inimical to their safety or global interests. This obviously forces the question: Is there an international cross-governmental campaign to censor or destroy WikiLeaks or its spokesperson Julian Assange? Is Julian Assange a hero or a villain?
A lot depends on the outcome of any jury if he is eventually brought before a court. If it is successfully proved that he committed the crimes that he is charged with, I suppose that will go some way in tainting his reputation in the eyes of an actively engaged global audience. Nevertheless, I do not believe that this man is a villain. Some of the ignorant public, given to emotionalism and paranoia in a post 9/11 world, have even dared to call Assange a traitor to the United States. Perhaps someone needs to remind these people that Mr. Assange is not even a citizen of the US and thus cannot be sensibly designated a traitor to the US!
I especially laud his courage to share information and knowledge with the rest of the online international community when such actions have the increasing potential of jeopardizing his life or freedom. Anyone who believes in the freedom of speech especially the freedom to online speech should vehemently protest the “persecution” meted out to this man. Just think about it—if this whistle-blower is silenced easily with the co-option of myopic cyber commentary, the same fate could easily be visited on these cyber analysts by the government and all manner of internet-censorship advocates if they feel that they have enough reasons to warrant such an action! This represents a rapacious assault on free speech as far as I am concerned. WikiLeaks, with its dogged commitment to providing free information to a thirsty global public, seems poised to continue its activities despite these besetting inconveniences.
Finally, I would like to suggest that making a scapegoat out of Assange isn’t going to make the WikiLeaks phenomenon disappear neither is it going to satiate the appetite of the global public for glimpses into the backroom orchestrations of governments all around the world. In silencing Assange, or even in dismantling WikiLeaks, I think they would unwittingly be attempting to slay the Lernean Hydra—the result will be a mushroom of little and even more dispersed outfits boldly attempting to shine light into decisions or policies that several government would prefer to keep the public in the dark about.