What’s the Meaning of Julian Assange? #assange

Today’s lead news in the UK is the arrest of Wikileaks (which is actually not a ‘wiki’ at all, ironically) founder Julian Assange.  He’s been arrested following allegations of sexual assault in Sweden and it’s important to separate that from other allegations that he may have broken other laws by publishing leaked US Government information. Or is it?

Sweden certainly has a robust legal system and the allegations there are serious ones.  And while seems odd to laypersons that the lawyer representing the alleged victims is also a politician, Assange’s lawyers are themselves being a little cute by presenting Claes Borgstrom as a politician, rather than a lawyer, when they  have complained vociferously about the US’s clumsiness in conflating the roles of their client (Assange) and themselves.  That said, they are very media-savvy and the situation is, er, unusual. Things haven’t been helped, of course, by lunatic assertions from very senior politicians of the US right that Asange should face execution or extra-judicial assasination; or indeed to say, as one Senator has, that if Assange hasn’t broken any laws then the laws should be changed retrospectively in order to engineer an extradition. That kind of talk is actually quite disgraceful and can surely only serve to damage the US’s image abroad. But to be fair on the US administration itself, most of its public comment has been measured as they consider whether Asange’s publishing has indeed broken any of their laws.

And has he? Well, he’s a publisher.  He didn’t leak the information himself.  And the follow-through by The New York Times (and the UK’s Guardian, along with one paper in German and one in France)  suggests that there would likely be a strong ‘public-interest’ defence in respect of at least some of the information he (and they) have published.  It’s certainly hard to imagine the US Government going after the editor of the NY Times. Or us banging up Alan Rusbridger (hmmm). And what about all the other ‘publishers’ who have re-broadcast the same material through mirror websites?  And why stop there?  Why not also go after the ISPs too?  Moreover, no-one’s yet been able to say what actual serious harm has been done by the leaks.  Only evidence, not supposition, will really suffice in that respect.

No, my instinct (admittedly not always, er, flawless) is that arrest and trial will probably stop at the alleged leaker. Meanwhile, Assange may simply have to accept that when you’re on the wrong side of the most powerful interests in the world, if you have a (alleged) weak flank then it’s unlikely to go un-noticed.

The media has, understandably, placed human drama at the centre of the story. That will fade, albeit not for a while yet.  I wrote below of how I think the many deeper questions around the ways new media has inextricably altered the relationship between state and citizen, and I don’t doubt that over time governments will have to adjust to higher levels of transparency than they yet seem able to imagine.

For the moment, it’s clear that there’s a lot of barking going on but biting seems unlikely. Quietly, democratic administrations the world over will be ditching outmoded assumptions about information management and control.  If they don’t, their bluff will be called time and time again by a million Assanges.  Non-democratic states won’t be immune either, although the dynamics in places like China will naturally be different. In the end, though, the true meaning of the Assange saga lies in the fact that new media; the cloud, social media, and all the rest of it, has has been epoch-changing.  That’s been obvious to a minority for a long time, but governments are only now just waking up to it.

When The Digitial Economy Act went through the UK parliament on the nod earlier this year, most politicians had little interest. This mirrored what went on in most parliaments across the world. The political mainstream viewed the whole business as largely technical and mainly about the scrap between ‘creators’, like musicians and journalists, and ‘disseminators’, like Google and the ISPs. Suddenly, through the Wikileaks episodes, that’s all changed.  In truth, there’s now nothing more imperative in the political firmament. And that of itself can’t be a bad thing, can it?

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Gordon Brown and The Web Foundation #deact #deappg

worldwideweb federationThere’s been quite a bit of comment (#deact on twitter) about Gordon Brown’s appointment to the Board of the Web Foundation. It’s been mainly negative, on account of the fact that that the DE Act is viewed by many as being a bit, er, rough around the edges.  It’s passage in the Commons was certainly a hash and while there’s now some sensible engagement taking place from all sides on the issues  extending from the Act with the Digital Economy all Party Group (DEAPPG), it’s fair that the former pm should bear ultimate responsibility, bad and good.  And yet, it’s clear that politicians as a whole have a long way to go to understanding the implications of media and the importance of the Act.  And it’s also true that it’s unlikely the DE Act was the pm’s top priority in the days before the beginning of a general election campaign.

But more important, Gordon Brown’s primary  concern here is probably not the web per se, it’s the scope the web provides to help the world’s poorest.  Most folk would accept that, I think.  Equatorial Africa is largely excluded from the web and this mirrors it’s exclusion from most options for economic growth.  Rwanda leads the way as a modernising state which stresses the importance of the web, yet even there internet access is limited to around 1% of the population.  But with mobile telephone technology widespread in Africa, there really is potential for a revolutionion in internet access; one which may well largely by-pass landlines.

I spend quite a lot of time reading what people have to say about new technologies.  Little of it, to be honest, is about how they have scope to help the most benighted populations in the world.  Gordon Brown’s appointment has the potential to catalyse the views and action of those keen to help the world’s poorest and those interested in new technologies.  There’s a big overlap on that particular Venn diagram, I’m sure.

So I think – good for the web foundation, and let’s give my old boss a break?