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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#WIKILEAKS

There are three general lines of thought expressed around the Wikileaks saga. The first is condemnatory. Governments, led by the US, say Julian Assange and his colleagues are risking the lives of others and  damaging the effectiveness of international diplomacy in respect of some of the trickiest parts of the world. The second is laudatory; to celebrate freedom of information without reservation – to view the release of sensitive government information as A Good per se.  The third is uncertainty. Whisteblowers play an important function in any democratic society, yet it’s hard to see how Wikileaks can be the best judges of what may and what may not be the consequences of the release of particular information. What happens next? I guess I’m in that third category.

Wherever you stand, it seems to me that there’s been too little said so far about what Wikileaks means for the future of official government data classification and management.  There’s a host of other questions lurking beneath that too.  Like will governments in future choose to accept that people will know a lot more about the sometimes difficult-to-stomach compromises which nevertheless keep citizens safe? And will those citizens accept that the price of these new information flows is that they will need to face up more that before to the moral contradictions and compromises which lie at the core of they way they live?  And how will private sector companies behave?  For example, Amazon and others have been quick to de-activate their Wikileaks domains, and that’s understandable for the moment.  But their reason – that Wikileaks may be breaching copyright  – looks very thin.  First off, documents produced by government servants are specifically excluded from copyright protection there. Second, and more important, are they ruling out whistleblowing full stop? Of course not. They’re just getting their umbrellas up and breaking their necks looking at everyone else.

The US government chose to give access to sensitive information, via Siprnet, to perhaps millions of government servants.  It’s not to condemn the US administration to say that they missed the significance of the digital native.  I think everyone administration’s in the same boat, to be honest. This isn’t my original point, it’s my mate Martin’s, about young people joining the army, entering government service, and not just in the US, are through digital media empowered in ways beyond the establishment’s understanding. Their values are still being shaped, often without the compromises required by mortgages, kids, all the other stuff. Maybe they show no respect.  Maybe they don’t get enough in.  But it is most certainly a two-way street.

Whatever, there’s no way to constrain the Wikileaks phenomenon. Governments know they have to live with it.  Things have changed.  There’s no point closing a site or trying to go back to paper.  That’s just the way it is.  I truly hope that people will rise to the challenge – I think they will.  It’s not exactly Hobbitland protected by dark Striders.  But I tell you this; it’s sometimes close.

In the last few months, via the All Party Group on the Digital Economy, I’ve met a lot of people all governments should speak to about this stuff.  So they should.