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What Kejriwal can learn from Assange

Kejriwal may do well to learn from Assange on using the Net’s viral capability to unsettle governments
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First Published: Thu, Nov 15 2012. 07 21 PM IST
Ironically, if there are any other similarities between (left) Kejriwal and Assange, it’s in their style of functioning which has led to dissension in the ranks. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint; AFP
Ironically, if there are any other similarities between (left) Kejriwal and Assange, it’s in their style of functioning which has led to dissension in the ranks. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint; AFP
Updated: Thu, Nov 15 2012. 07 30 PM IST
Arvind Kejriwal is certainly no Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks or at least its main face, who has ploughed through fields of documents to become a global whistleblower and unsettle administrations across the world using the power of the Internet.
Kejriwal, more a local whistleblower, was an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer who turned activist and now, a politician. He is set to form his political party on 26 November and there’s buzz that he will use the mango (known as aam in Hindi and which also denotes ordinary) as his party symbol to be seen as representing the aam aadmi (or common man). And while it remains to be seen if a whistleblower politician will be taken seriously, Kejriwal can learn a lot from Assange, who has become popular with the masses and media by taking on the establishment.
For one, Assange has a global appeal (has even targeted the Indian government). In fact, his website offers a screen to other whistleblowers by leaking their documents from his website and other mirror sites to escape jurisdictions.
Second, despite criticism, WikiLeaks is taken seriously by the media and governments themselves and Assange never had to fast to grab attention. Instead, he used the Internet’s viral capability to unsettle governments.
On 10 October, for instance, WikiLeaks begins releasing over 200,000 Global Intelligence Files (GI Files) relating to the US presidential election. The GI Files have over five million emails from the US private intelligence firm Stratfor—a multinational private intelligence firm providing services to large corporations and government agencies.
The WikiLeaks tremors were felt in India, too. Among the site’s “conquests” in India are classified cabinet documents on the constitution of the Unique Identification Authority; the leakage of the confidential plans for 1.2 billion ID cards (October-November 2009). However, India has also taken advantage of the leaks to officially react on the revelations made in the Afghan war documents (2010), and insisted that Pakistan “...cease forthwith its policy of sponsoring terrorism and stop the utilization of its territory for recruiting and providing haven to terrorists”.
Assange’s WikiLeaks, unlike Kejriwal, has no headquarters or offices, and the WikiLeaks’ creator has not been formally identified. The hierarchy structure is said to be “opaque”, to protect identity in case of legal or physical harm. However, the site states it was “founded by Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa”. And the site has been represented in public by figures like Assange (a technologist from Australia), who describes himself as a member of the WikiLeaks’ advisory board.
WikiLeaks.org, incidentally, is very popular in India. It has a three-month global Alexa (an online site tracker) traffic rank of 12,141 globally. The time spent in a typical visit to the site is about three minutes, with 54 seconds spent on each pageview. Approximately 46% of visits to WikiLeaks.org consist of only one pageview (i.e., are bounces). Visitors to the site view 2.8 unique pages each day on average. Currently, 14.1% users are from the US, followed by 11.5% from India (comes second globally) and 8.7% from Germany.
The Indiaagainstcorruption.org website (primarily associated with social activist Anna Hazare) has a three-month global Alexa traffic rank of 45,191. Approximately 37% of visits to the site consist of only one pageview (i.e., are bounces). Approximately 95% of visitors to it come from India, where it has attained a traffic rank of 2,175. Visitors to the site spend about 60 seconds on each pageview and a total of four minutes on the site during each visit, and visitors to Indiaagainstcorruption.org view 3.2 unique pages each day on average.
And Pcrf.in (Public Cause Research Foundation), Kejriwal’s own site, has a three-month global Alexa traffic rank of 460,252, way below both the other websites. PCRF has attained a traffic rank of 28,078 among users in India, where almost all its audience is located, according to Alexa. The site’s visitors view an average of 2.4 unique pages per day. Approximately, 50% of visits to the site are bounces (one pageview only). Visitors to Pcrf.in spend about 58 seconds on each pageview and a total of three minutes on the site during each visit.
If there’s any similarity between these sites, it’s in the user demographics.
Compared with all Internet users, WikiLeaks users are disproportionately male, and they are disproportionately childless users under 35 who browse from school and home, reveal Alexa data. Similarly, Indiaagainstcorruption.org is visited more frequently by males who are in the age range 18-24, have no children and are graduate school educated. Likewise, Pcrf.in is visited more frequently by users who are in the age range 25-34, have no children and received some college education.
Ironically, if there are any other similarities between Assange and Kejriwal, it’s in their style of functioning which has led to dissension in the ranks.
Within WikiLeaks, there has been public disagreement between Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the site’s former German representative who quit WikiLeaks in September 2010 to start a rival whistleblower organization named OpenLeaks. According to The Independent (London), at least a dozen key supporters of WikiLeaks left the website in 2010.
Similarly, Kerjriwal—who resigned from IRS in 2006 and founded an PCRF by donating his Magasaysay award money as the corpus fund, had joined hands with Hazare and like-minded people to form the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement. But he now has announced his entry into politics due to differences with Hazare and Kiran Bedi—an Indian social activist and a retired Indian Police Service officer.
Assange, meanwhile, uses both technology and offline methods to promote his cause. WikiLeaks uses cutting-edge cryptographic technologies and also collects materials in person and from postal drops. It also runs a network of lawyers and others to defend its work and sources. WikiLeaks is also reported to have siphoned off over a million documents online using Tor (also known as ‘The Onion Router’)—a privacy tool that lets users navigate and send documents without the fear of being traced. A Tor network uses around 1,000 volunteer servers around the world. To transmit a document, a whistleblower downloads the software (called Tor client) and uses it to insert the document into the Tor network.
WikiLeaks is also hard to trace. The whistleblower site reportedly hosts its main servers in Sweden (Sweden has clear legal protections for the confidentiality of journalistic sources, though the application of these protections to WikiLeaks contributors has not been tested in court) with back-up servers in other jurisdictions. Its hosting provider, PRQ, was originally founded by one of the creators of the controversial file-sharing information site, Pirate Bay, as a free-speech friendly Internet service provider. WikiLeaks is also mirrored at undisclosed locations around the world, so if it’s taken down in one location, other sites can take over.
Kejriwal, on the other hand, is more the grass roots man, labouring with disclosing scams and having the media to do the “due diligence” to avoid any defamation cases that could surface later (data from WikiLeaks, in contrast, are more reliable even as Assange in some cases has been criticized for revealing the data without a proper context). Besides, Kejriwal hardly uses much technology beyond the website and a minor presence on social networking sites.
So which is a more sustainable method?
Assange has survived for six years. His detractors have come up with similar models, which effectively keep the movement alive. Kejriwal is getting into the game. He may do well to learn some lessons from Assange on Internet grass roots, too, if he wants his model to be sustainable and taken seriously both at home and globally.
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First Published: Thu, Nov 15 2012. 07 21 PM IST
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