Medb Ruane: Where's the democracy in hunting Wikileaks off the Net?
Published 11/12/2010 | 05:00
In January, Hillary Clinton celebrated the power of new technologies to challenge tyrants. Speaking soon after China's alleged cyber attack on Google, the US Secretary of State championed the internet as "the iconic infrastructure of our age" and warned about attempts to target "independent thinkers who use these tools".
She quoted President Obama's words that even in authoritarian countries, information networks were "helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable".
Clinton's joy turned full circle when Julian Assange's independent website WikiLeaks began to publish more than 250,000 classified documents about Iraq, Afghanistan and various US diplomatic interests.
In May, he'd released a cockpit video of an Apache gunship killing 19 civilians in Iraq, including journalists and children. The classified material told of cover-ups, secret assassination units and the killing of civilians.
Assange was arrested in London this week. His site is under virtual fire, with service providers such as PayPal, eBay, Mastercard and Amazon suddenly finding contractual ways to drop WikiLeaks from their domains.
Clinton had clearly intended her remarks about targeting independent thinkers to be heard by repressive regimes outside the United States. Sadly, her own administration risks being counted as an offender.
The Net is buzzing with conspiracy theories about Assange's arrest on an extradition warrant for alleged sexual offences in Sweden. He'd already received death threats. Sarah Palin went on Facebook and Twitter to brand him "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands" who should be hunted down "with the same urgency as Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders".
"Well, I think Assange should be assassinated, actually," Canadian political scientist Tom Flanagan had glibly said on CBC TV. "I think Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something."
Assange's leaked documents confirmed what many suspected, chiefly about the wars undertaken by the Bush and Blair administrations. US Private Bradley Manning, who was allegedly a source, is currently awaiting trial.
Edited versions were published in mainstream media, including Der Spiegel, El Pais, the Guardian and The New York Times, apparently without Government censure. These omitted the names of US operatives included in the unedited WikiLeaks files.
One security red flag emerging in the WikiLeaks story is that some three million US public servants were cleared to access the classified information. If you transfer that security issue to other big databases, such as healthcare, the implications for personal privacy are mind-boggling.
The leaks are certainly embarrassing. Some are gossipy responses to leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi ("feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader") and North Korea's Kim Jong-il ("a flabby old chap").
There's no comment yet on Irish leaders, although Ireland features through two areas of perceived strategic interest -- a transatlantic submarine broadband system called the Hibernia Atlantic cable; and the 37-acre Genzyme site, a biotechnology facility near Waterford.
They also record how Irish officials reflected public concerns about using Shannon as an airbase in 2006.
Disclosure always tests boundaries, whether national or personal. But Assange is not accountable in any transparent way. He hasn't broken protocols or editorial conventions because this digital void has none. He's a front-runner in a new dimension and that's the challenge.
The problem is how to regulate and respect things so people can gain and accountability grow, without compromising legitimate interests and personal security. It's a major democratic dilemma, because it could make hundreds of millions of people more literate and informed, if it's regulated appropriately.
Clinton's position is doubly difficult because the kind of democracy and accountability she champions will be threatened if her Government can't identify reasonable boundaries within which Assange and other truth-seekers can work. It's up to the world's biggest democracy to invent new ways of licensing expression in the digital age, even if the same democracy is challenged relent- lessly.
"Can you give a guarantee that the editors of WikiLeaks and the editor- in-chief, who is not American, will not be subjected to the kind of manhunt that we read about in the media?" the journalist John Pilger asked a senior US Department of Defence official, months before Assange's arrest.
"It's not my position to give guarantees on anything," he replied.
Hunting Assange off the Net serves no one except opponents of democracy. I don't know what precise balance can be struck between greater accountability and securing legitimate interests, between respecting classified sources and honouring freedom of expression. But there's something craven in the way online servers have capitulated to who-knows-what pressure behind the scenes.
Should there be a global convention? Who would negotiate it, if stakeholders got together? Silencing WikiLeaks and its tools forever would cripple this 'iconic infrastructure' at the ankles, something like those flat-earth proponents who tried to stop sailors crossing the Atlantic because they believed there was nothing on the other side. A brave new world will be lost if boundaries aren't set.