Julian Assange, the Australian founder and face of
Wikileaks, is an anarchist ideologue, and the idea that an anarchist is writing
the rules for information freedom for the internet ought to worry democracies.
This week’s cyber-attacks on PayPal, Visa
and Mastercard ought to be sufficient evidence that Wikileaks poses a serious
threat on three fronts.
The first, most spectacular and least
dangerous, is that it energises hackers to attack businesses and government
organisations. A group called “Anonymous” has initiated “Operation Payback” to
shut down companies by flooding their servers with traffic. They have
threatened other companies which have restricted Wikileaks’ finances at the
request of US authorities. The hackers — who are not members of Wikileaks — chose
their target well. Not only does this punish the lickspittle lackeys of the US
government, it also demonstrates that anarchists can disrupt the world
In one of the most insightful comments on
the threat posed by Wikileaks, Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford
University, the author of a book to be published next month, The Net
Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, told the Christian
Science Monitor a few days before the cyber attacks:
that if Assange is really treated badly and unjustly by the authorities – and
possibly even tried like a “terrorist” as some prominent US politicians have
suggested – this would nudge the movement toward violent forms of resistance. Given
that many of these people are tech-literate and that more and more of our public
infrastructure is digital, this could be a significant impediment to the growth
of the global economy: Just think of the potential losses if Visa and
MasterCard cannot process online payments because of some mysterious cyber-attacks
on their servers.
No doubt stiffer policing of the internet
and better security software will protect big corporations and governments. But
what about smaller, poorer organisations?
The second danger is the harm to the
reputation of US diplomacy. There are few surprises in the cables, especially
for other governments. Is there really anyone who did not know that Silvio
Berlusconi was a party-hearty guy with an eye for beautiful women? Is there
anyone in Central Asia unaware that Nursultan Nazarbaev is a megalomaniac? But
for the public in the countries mocked by the diplomats, these are deadly
insults. The damage to the reputation of the US will take a long time to
It will be impossible to repair the lives
lost as a result of disclosures made by Wikileaks about Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Taliban has been combing through the earlier cache of documents, looking
for traitors and informants. Not that Assange cares. His comments in a long
interview with the New Yorker earlier this year are chilling:
I asked Assange
if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone
killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby
people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn
them, but that there were also instances where the members of Wikileaks might
get “blood on our hands.”
The most shameful thing is that major
newspapers have been enthusiastically cooperating with this anarchist threat.
Although the 250,000 US State Department cables are available on the Wikileaks
website (currently at http://184.108.40.206/)
the world has been reading excerpts edited by the London Guardian, the New York
Times, El Pais, in Spain, Le Monde, in France, and Der Spiegel, in Germany.
Heedless of the consequences for the security of the US and its allies, the
newspapers have published the juiciest tidbits. It’s hardly surprising that
some skulduggery has come to light but is it sinister enough to justify the
Nor is it good journalism. Basically this
represents the Twitterization of the news: salacious gossip, snippets of
information taken out of context, characters without a plot. As US Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates said, it’s like looking at a war through a soda straw.
Assange has a convoluted anarchist theory to explain why he published the
cables. But the newspapers? As Australian media analyst Jonathan
Holmes says, “Their justification for printing many of these cables
seems to me, in that case, to be just, well, that they’re secret, and they’re
interesting because they’re secret.”
US rage has been directed at Assange.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described
the leak as ““an attack against the international community”. Some
politicians and pundits have even demanded his head on a platter. “We should
treat Mr Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him,”
Jeffrey T Kuhner in the Washington Times. But Assange did not steal
the documents. He merely published them. How is his role in the saga
essentially different from the editors of the New York Times or the Guardian?
They also have blood on their hands.
The third, and the most sinister, is the
rise of information terrorism. Suicide bombers sent by Islamic terrorists can
be foiled. Cyber-terrorists can be jailed. But information terrorism strikes at
Has it occurred to no one at the New York
Times that if Julian Assange can publish government documents stamped “secret”,
“confidential” and “Not for foreign eyes” with impunity, why can’t he
publish X-ray images of naked airport travellers? Or the tax returns of all of
the Times journalists? Or their daughters’ hidden Facebook pages? Or viewers of
hard-core pornography on websites run by the Russian mafia?
In fact, information terrorism is already
taking place in the US, even without the help of Wikileaks. The vitriolic debate
over same-sex marriage in California highlighted this trend. The names of
donors to Proposition 8 were made public. Many later complained that they
suffered property destruction and threats. Perhaps, it could be argued, courage
in asserting political convictions is the price of participating in a
democracy. But what if confidential information about political opponents were
posted on Wikileaks? Reputations would be ruined but it would be impossible to
sue for defamation. Journalism and politics could be brought to a halt by the
fear of blackmail.
A often-quoted internet slogan is that
“information wants to be free”. Assange has turned this into a kind of
metaphysical principle. Hiding information is the way governments have of
oppressing people and keeping them in servitude. Leaking information destroys
their monopoly power. According to the Wikileaks website:
When the risks
of embarrassment and discovery increase, the tables are turned against
conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers
injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes
corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good
But what about the right to privacy? Both
institutions and persons also have a right to a domain of undisclosed
information. There is a way of arbitrating this tension between transparency
and privacy. In a democratic state it is called the law. But in the anarchic
governance proposed by Assange, he alone is the arbiter of what is publishable
and what is not.
What will happen if Julian Assange’s
Wikileaks project is not shut down? Assange’s goals have a certain megalomaniac
nobility — changing the way the world is governed in order to empower “a
people’s will to truth, love and self-realization”. But his competitors and
imitators will be far less scrupulous than he is. Other sites are sure to
spring up devoted to hosting politically-motivated leaks. After Oprah comes
Jerry Springer. Do we really want to live in a world where hackers with the
morality of Jerry Springer determine what we read in our morning newspaper?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.