Monday, January 17, 2011

No Rest for the Wiki'd

For the past couple of months, I've been wondering what history books 50 years from now will have to say about Novemeber 28th 2010, the day when the website WikiLeaks under the guidance of whistleblower-extraordinaire Julian Assange began releasing a big old pile of classified diplomatic cables. What kinds of stories will they tell? Will they declare November 28th to be Julian Assange Day? I hope schools and businesses are closed that day; so we can all gather 'round and hear stories of how one handsome hacker from Down Under forever altered the course of global politics, releasing captive information from the clutches of governments and mega-corporations for all to take in. And we'll trade stories about how the mean old US government tried to hunt him down through extralegal means and about how the digital behemoths Amazon and PayPal sold themselves out to Uncle Sam by cutting off their support to Wikileaks. And of course, we'll all ooh and aah at the courageous exploits of the Anonymous collective, who rose from the miry depths of parents' basements the world over, wielding the sword of justice in the form of a maelstrom of poorly-constructed HTTP requests against these complicit citadels of cyber-oppression. And we'll all sing songs of praise about the heroic movement that made all information free to anyone anywhere, thus solving all of the world's problems, save mortality. Oh, man. So cool!

Of course, even 50 years from now, this prospect sounds pretty absurd. It has now been almost two months since the biggest leak of classified information belonging to the US government ever, yet the world I know has not changed much at all. Perhaps, more realistically, the "Cablegate" scandal will be immortalized with a mediocre testosterone-injected, PG13-rated action thriller. I can see the trailer now. A fast-paced montage of our hero Mr. Assange running in front of explosions, frenching random ladies in Sweden, and a team of FBI agents kicking down a door, drawing their guns, and one of them yelling, "FREEZE!" All of this accompanied by the chorus of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive". Of course, even this prospect is a big push since I can't imagine this whole controversy being remembered even five years from now.

I'm a libertarian. In today's political culture I'm expected to applaud the actions of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and lose sleep over the ways in which my government could bend its laws to get back at this guy. However, libertarianism has a long-standing emphasis of individual responsibility to follow one's conscience, even at the risk of being unpopular, or worse. Thus, I will be the best libertarian I can be by turning my attention away from what my government can do and instead calling into question what my fellow citizens have done. When Amazon and PayPal nixed their support for WikiLeaks, they were accosted as being sell-outs and enemies of free speech. They were even targets of a brief denial-of-service attack. Last week, we learned that the Justice Department asked Twitter to secretly turn over the account information of WikiLeaks associates. Twitter blabbed, and now they are being praised by geeks and free-speech activists everywhere. It seems that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have become synonymous with free speech in general. If you have a problem with WikiLeaks, you're against free speech. How did it come to this?

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a day in which we reflect on one of the most important leaders of one of the most important social changes of all time. It seems a cheap shot to invoke Dr. King in defending Mr. Assange, but these two are worthy of comparison. They both were central figures in ambitious social changes. For King, it was the dignity and civil rights of all people regardless of ethnicity. For Assange, it's the honesty and transparency of governments. Both were confrontational, standing up to regimes they believed to be wrong, even to the United States. They both suffered for the choices they made. King is admired by practically everyone, even today. So why wouldn't Mr. Assange be remembered years from now?

Martin Luther King didn't flinch when he saw oppression and injustice in the system. He was straightforward in his criticism of America's policy in Vietnam as evidenced by this anachronistic sermon-on-tape. No doubt, King was a confrontational dude, but he never reveled in the mystical rock-stardom stereotypically associated with many activists in the public eye. His boycott of the Montgomery public bus system was indeed drastic, but it was also well-calculated. Boycotting the public transit system was a strategic move because the lack of patronage spelled financial troubles for the city of Montgomery. The drying up of revenue forced the city of Montgomery to pay attention to those oppressed by their unjust, racist laws. Dr. King also played the move carefully to gain public sympathy. He didn't push forward with the boycott until word got out about Rosa Parks, a law-abiding African American woman with a respectable job whose only "crime" was refusing to give up her bus seat designated by law to white people only. Now he had the proof needed to communicate to otherwise uninterested townspeople about the realities of segregation. What a clever way to engage people! You might say it was accidental journalism.

Stacked up against King's leadership, WikiLeaks' big leak comes off as a cruel joke. Assange simply collected from a grab bag of diplomatic cables obtained illegally by various donors and put them out on the Internet. That's it! No journalistic exposition. No apparent third party explanations as to why this matters to average joes. Just information, thrown out there for anyone to download. Not a very impressive feat if you ask me, but how about the content of these cables? Anything juicy? Maybe, but there's so much information here, I can hardly tell. Most of the content is just benign dinner conversations among dignitaries. Assange and the WikiLeaks team could've at least sifted through these documents to point their audience to real or potential abuses of power. Instead, they just splatter-painted a bunch of random information that altogether is about as lucid and focused as a rambling occult manifesto published some years ago by one of my state delegates. (I wish I was making this up!) No rhyme. No reason. Just information. For information's sake?

There is one piece of information in this mess of cables that stands out (and I owe it to several news institutions that aren't WikiLeaks for pointing me to it) and that is the briefing from the State Department requesting government officials to spy on UN ambassadors. I do believe that shifty behavior like this should be brought to the light, yet I don't find this revelation to be all that disappointing. I'm a libertarian, remember? I'm already familiar with the shady goings-on in our government: They subsidize corn grown in the Midwest, forcing me to pay for crops I probably won't need. Our previous President unconstitutionally declared war. They do a lot of little favors for their lobbyist pals, all without my permission. I'm already aware of this! I believe government folk are just as human as the rest of us, which is why government should be as limited as possible and be small enough to easily be held accountable. You may disagree, but my beliefs are pretty well-entrenched no thanks to the "brave" endeavors of WikiLeaks. If you still find this big leak a courageous feat of investigation worthy of militant support, allow me to offer some food for thought: Did you actually gain any new insight from these documents? Were you even able to read them? Have your beliefs about the US government and your civic responsibility changed as a result of this leak?

It's well-established that, like many prolific activists taking bold stands, Julian Assange has paid a price for his actions. In 2010, he moved around a lot to avoid authorities. After the diplomatic cable leak, he became even more elusive. This reaction is understandable if you're in big trouble with some very powerful people, but what if Mr. Assange didn't play hide and seek? What if, instead of trotting the globe in search of asylum, he allowed himself to be subdued by the authorities? What if he put himself out in the open, saying something to the effect of, "I am Julian Assange. I'm taking a stand for these issues. Go ahead, arrest me. I still think you're wrong, and I'm willing to go to jail in the name of the people you've been secretly oppressing." Would it change people's perceptions about government transparency and accountability? After all, it's not like WikiLeaks would have ceased to function if Assange was doing time in the slammer.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn't just devote himself to a worthy cause. He devoted himself so fervently that people then and now couldn't deny him respect even if they didn't agree with everything he said. Dr. King carefully chose to refuse violence when standing up to corrupt authorities, citing Gandhi as an influence. Why did he choose non-violence? It couldn't have been to get results. Why, you can get anything you want through force and violence; just look at the founding of the Soviet Union! Dr. King saw the humanity behind the systemic injustice of institution, showing compassion even for the people who oppressing him and his community. And as an itinerant minister, he made sacrifices to engage communities even in the South where he knew that resistance was violent and venomous. As you all know, it ultimately cost him his life, yet he braved these challenges all the way without a shred of anonymity. A far cry from Assange or the faceless hoodlums of Anonymous!

I have to give credit to Assange for caring about obscure things that more folks should care about: Extrajudicial killings, civilian casualties of "collateral damage", unscrupulous banks, etc. These are things that are worth further investigation and perhaps even encouraging some huge social change. But how high of a price are you willing to pay to spearhead such change? Julian Assange tries to encapsulate the aforementioned issues as a problem of information flow. I've seen enough debates about the merits of his theories; I'm more troubled by the very little effort on the part of him and his cohorts to do anything about these issues aside from throwing a big ole' mess of government documents out on the 'Net and calling it an exposé. Not to mention, Assange and Anonymous' repeated attempts to stay underground, which leads me to what I think is the most blatant hypocrisy of the pro-WikiLeaks crowd. Assange is allowed to flee from country to country to avoid authorities. Anonymous is allowed to keep its members' identities under wraps, true to its name. Yet Amazon and PayPal are expected to fight to the end for free speech by giving overt support to WikiLeaks. (i.e. through web-hosting and donation management) Some folks (Anonymous) even have the nerve to punish these companies for "selling out" by disrupting their business through denial-of-service attacks. Sickening! The "free-speech" fanboys applaud Twitter now for their defiance of the Justice Department, but what if the DOJ ramps up their effort? And what if Twitter folds and starts handing them account information without consent from the account-holders? Will they then be panned as sell-outs and enemies of freedom?

The price to pay for major social change, whether it's for open governments or civil rights, is and always will be a high one. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that, and we remember him for his exceptional bravery. Amazon and PayPal were at least brave enough to honestly assess themselves; they decided that they as a whole deemed the crusade for information anarchy too dangerous and wanted no part in it. Sorry, WikiLeaks and friends. In the shadows of brave souls like Dr. King, Gandhi, Corrie Ten Boom, Nelson Mandela, and many others, there's just not enough going for you for me to consider you heroic, let alone carry my proverbial cross for your cause.

I know I'm not the only one who hates editorials that gripe about things without discussing how things could be better; so I'll leave you with this little blurb about Witness (Warning! The video contains violent images.), an organization that I've found to be virtually everything WikiLeaks should have been. Witness is journalist organization that exposes brutality by governments by filming it and showing the films to select people. One of its co-founders was Peter Gabriel, proving that even a founding father of the nerdy, indulgent musical genre known as prog-rock can find an outlet for his artistic pursuits that extends far beyond himself! Like WikiLeaks, Witness is just as much entrepeneurship as it is activism, placing emphasis on the method of using technology (specifically video recording) to communicate causes. Also, like WikiLeaks, Witness is not an assembly of "nice guys." They film corrupt governments in action without their permission, and they "leak" their film footage to people whom said governments would not want to see. Unlike WikiLeaks, they produce focused footage that they know will engage their audience. They don't just throw out some complicated government mumbo-jumbo and say, "Here, read these." They are also very careful about who they release their footage to. Furthermore, those who go to the front line to film this footage risk everything, including their lives. That's bravery, folks! Julian Assange and WikiLeaks could learn a thing or two from these guys. Maybe Assange, if he'll ever walk around a free man again, could turn WikiLeaks into an organization worth applauding. Until then, Peter Gabriel would be a more worthy candidate for a national holiday 50 years from now.


  1. Assange is no MLK. He's the main character of the WikiLeaks story, but he's not the hero. Journalists cooperating with WikiLeaks make WikiLeaks' work relevant; it sounds like Witness is doing work on this same front: making tyranny visible. Leakers, like, say, Bradley Manning, can play heroic roles. Manning is held in cruel conditions, as detailed here:
    Categories are fuzzy. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was clearly a great leader; he might well have been a womanizer. Regardless of how much good WikiLeaks does anyone, Julian Assange will seem creepy to me. I'm glad Manning leaked Collateral Murder, but maybe he should have not leaked some other things.

    I really liked this essay. I think "hacktivism" is a dumb idea: there's a big difference between going to jail or getting beaten up for what you believe in, and doing DDOS attacks or yelling "Tom Cruise Hates Mudkips!"

  2. I think the most important revelation of WikiLeaks is how frequently the government lies--about the little things, about everything. I wonder when the U.S. is going to get around to figuring out that prolonged solitary is cruel and unusual (there are like 28,000 prisoners in prolonged solitary as we speak), and is particularly unjustified for pre-trial confinement in which the only real relevant concern should be making sure that the accused doesn't skip town. Great title, btw.