It tells you something about the world today that the founders of two Web-based organizations established as recently as 2004 and 2006 slugged it out for Time’s Person of the Year. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg beat WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to the top spot. Facebook’s business model depends on persuading sane people into making their personal lives public, while WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization that publishes classified and secret information about oppressive regimes from sources that it keeps anonymous. Facebook and WikiLeaks testify to the startling power of the Web over what we used to think of as our “real” lives, but in the context of 2011, Time’s editors picked the wrong man.
WikiLeaks is important in three separate, though overlapping ways. First, WikiLeaks is important as a clearing house for news that you can’t get elsewhere. It is crucial as journalism. Second, WikiLeaks deserves our attention because it is trying to pioneer a digital insurgency against what it thinks are unaccountable bureaucracies and conspiratorial states. In this avatar, it is a rallying point for a radical politics that’s based on the premise that the workings of a state should be presumptively open and transparent, a venerable idea that has suddenly been given teeth by the digital revolution. Finally, WikiLeaks is important as an example of the way in which individuals, corporations and states are constantly ambushed by a virtual world that we’ve come to take for granted over the last decade without stopping to think of its impact on our “offline” lives.
The trial: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the Frontline Club in London. Andrew Testa/The New York Times
Even if WikiLeaks’ significance was to be measured solely by its contribution to journalism, its place in the history of the 21st century would be secure. WikiLeaks documents have helped bring to light, among other things, corruption in Kenya, an oil scandal in Peru, membership lists of the British National Party, possibly illegal Swiss bank transactions, a nuclear accident in Iran’s Natanz facility and the behaviour and policies of the US military in the Afghan war. The recent release of US diplomatic cables has made us aware of the covert US war in Yemen, Hillary Clinton’s instructions to state department officials instructing them to spy on UN diplomats in breach of the 1961 Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations and the fact that German officials were intimidated and dissuaded by the US from investigating the illegal kidnapping and rendition of German citizens.
The journalistic credentials of WikiLeaks have been challenged on two main grounds. One, that everything that’s been leaked was well known before. This is self-evidently untrue. Even if this criticism was qualified to mean that WikiLeaks has only confirmed earlier suspicions (as in Saudi Arabian complicity in the campaign to bomb Iran), surely the documentation of speculation is the first principle of good journalism. The second criticism has to do with procedure: WikiLeaks is repeatedly accused of “dumping” information without processing it editorially.
Protest 2.0: Hundreds march to protest the detention of Julian Assange in Brisbane, Australia. Tertius Pickard/AP
For example, hostile critics constantly refer to the indiscriminate “dump” of 250,000 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in November. The truth is that WikiLeaks has shared copies of these quarter of a million cables with four mainstream papers and has only published those cables that have been edited, selected and redacted by those newspapers and magazines. At the time of writing, exactly 1,897 cables had been published by the WikiLeaks website, nearly all of which had also been published by its media partners. If you read the pages of The Guardian or Der Spiegel or The New York Times it becomes obvious that WikiLeaks has acted as an enabler of responsible, investigative journalism, not as a crazy media vigilante. Not only does the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg think of Julian Assange as a remarkable investigative journalist, so do politicians as different as President Lula of Brazil and ministers in Angela Merkel’s conservative government in Germany. In the US itself, Ron Paul, a Republican, spoke up for WikiLeaks in Congress, warning the Obama administration that “lying was not patriotic”.
While the journalism Wikileaks enables is important, for its founder, Julian Assange, it is incidental. Assange, unlike most reporters, isn’t interested in specific revelations; he wants to use these leaks to promote systemic change in the way unaccountable bureaucracies create policies invisible to the people in whose name they rule. Assange’s central idea is that by leaking the internal communications of oppressive bureaucracies, WikiLeaks forces them into becoming more opaque within themselves and thus degrades their ability to function. Specific revelations are useless against the hydra of the security state: Cut off one head and it’ll grow two more. But if an organization like WikiLeaks can create a sense of general anxiety within a bureaucratic apparatus or a state, it makes the exchange of information more guarded, more limited and less effective.
It’s not clear that Assange’s wishes will turn into horses; states and bureaucracies weren’t born yesterday: They are adaptable creatures and it’s likely that they will react in ways that might see the Net become more supervised, more authoritarian. Already in reaction to WikiLeaks’ revelations, the threatened displeasure of the US government has successfully bullied Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa into withdrawing services from WikiLeaks. The second largest corporation in the world, Apple, pulled a WikiLeaks app from its App store a few days after it went on sale. This blowback has brought home to us the fact that the portals of the Net are guarded by huge private companies which are easily “persuaded” by powerful states such as the US and China. Some transparency advocates who work in conventional, incremental ways are concerned that Assange’s work threatens the concessions they have won from governments.
These are legitimate concerns and need to be debated but it’s fair to say that bureaucracy’s reflexive need to classify has created a security state that needs to be reformed and whistleblowers like WikiLeaks force both civil society and the state to examine what kinds of information ought to be kept from public view. For example, the state department cables were not top secret cables, they were available to three million government employees, right down to lowly soldiers such as Private Manning who is accused of leaking them. Which raises the question, why were most of them classified at all?
The US, at least, has the First Amendment to protect newspapers such as The New York Times when they publish documents that the government has classified as secret. Criminal prosecutions are very hard to bring, even though Obama’s government is doing its best to revive the notorious 1917 Espionage Act as a weapon against Assange. But nowhere are WikiLeaks-like revelations more urgently needed than in India, where an Official Secrets Act criminalizes the publication of everything our political and bureaucratic masters think is For Their Eyes Only.
In a recent television show, one of India’s former ambassadors to Washington argued that the Official Secrets Act was the law of the land and, therefore, had to be respected in a democracy. This might have been a reasonable position had he not, later in the programme, waved away the laws that the US breached in spying on diplomats in UN headquarters in New York by arguing that all diplomats knew they were spied on all the time. What this tells us is that civil and military apparatchiks are outraged by any classified information about themselves leaked to ordinary citizens but completely blasé about diplomatic elites spying on each other. It is exactly this form of mandarin knowingness and secrecy that WikiLeaks very properly threatens.
The imbalance between what the state knows and what its citizens know grows daily in this digital age. The Obama administration has maintained and extended the Bush regime’s surveillance apparatus. Closer home, the Radia tapes remind us that the Indian state can legally listen to your private conversations for years on end and then connive in leaking them selectively to the press to serve anonymous agendas. Instead of railing at the magazines that published the leaks, the journalists and businessmen caught on tape ought to ask questions of a bureaucracy that uses private conversations not for legitimate law enforcement but as a way of influencing news headlines.
Finally, WikiLeaks is a metaphorical alarm clock shrilling in our ear, telling us to wake up because the digital world changed our lives as we slept. Except for the very young, we’re all Rip Van Winkles now. Bill Thompson, a columnist for the BBC, summed up the political implications of WikiLeaks brilliantly: It was, he wrote, “...democracy’s Napster moment, the point at which the forms of governance that have evolved over 200 years of industrial society prove wanting in the face of the network, just as the business models of the recording industry were swept away by the ease with which the Internet could transmit perfect digital copies of compressed music files.”
And just as the music industry grudgingly adapted to the digital world, not necessarily on its own terms, so will bureaucracies…and so will we. If Julian Assange is right, secretive states might become more open and less powerful. If Mark Zuckerberg has placed the right bets, more and more of us might make our private lives public on Facebook. The most conspiratorial mandarin and the most reclusive individual, whether they like it or not, will have to rethink both secrecy and privacy in this brave new world.
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history at Jamia Millia Islamia and is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
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