Who is on trial, Assange, technology or freedom of speech?

6 Dec 2010

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In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy says the actions and subsequent arrest warrant for Wikileaks’ Julian Assange could present a considerable moral crisis for our world.

There isn’t a journalist, blogger or media outlet anywhere that wouldn’t wish to be the oracle through which a devastating leak is transmitted. Whether it’s a big business that’s been misbehaving or short-changing the public, key personalities like politicians or celebrities whose actions bely their public persona or quite simply a great wrong that the public must know about.

There are different kinds of leaks. There are the scintillating damaging leaks where a whistle-blower whose conscience decides enough is enough; a controlled leak by PR firms or State or corporate spin doctors aimed at managing the message; or ones where individuals guided by a sense of justice, outrage or dogma endeavour to right a perceived wrong.

For whatever reason, the journalist or the individual conveying the message is in a position of trust and that means at all costs protecting the source.

What Julian Assange, the eccentric hacker/journalist/Scarlett Pimpernel/hacktivist has done with Wikileaks is create a mechanism through which leaks like 250,000 diplomatic cables or military depositions can be made public at an unprecedented scale and those responsible for those leaked documents cannot be traced.

In the past week, the publication of diplomatic cables which have caused massive embarrassment for a number of major world powers have resulted in a series of bewildering actions in such a short space of time.

It is a truly mammoth task to process it all at once. On the one hand, you have the Wikileaks domain being shut down ostensibly to defend against cyber attacks on the other, (coincidentally?) you have a man being pursued for alleged sex crimes in Sweden.

Unprecedented

The enormity of what Assange has done is unprecedented in the secretive, structured world of diplomacy. Unprecedented in the entire history of journalism. The enormity of what he has done in terms of freedom of speech or revelations normally communicated by the media is still hard to process, but nevertheless cannot be ignored.

Everything from cyber warfare against Google emanating from China’s politburo, Royals dealing in firearms and communiqués around US military issues in Afghanistan and Iraq to even the Irish Government’s actions around the use of Shannon as a stopover for US military transits were stoked up in a hornet’s nest rapidly turning into an information inferno.

In recent days, PayPal shut down the mechanism for Assange’s Wikileaks to raise donations, Amazon moved it off its servers and Sweden has issued an arrest warrant for alleged sexual offences against Assange.

Someone would have done it

If you look at what technology like the internet has enabled humanity to do in a few short years, it is not surprising that someone like Assange was able to create something like Wikileaks. While governments are salivating at the prospect of bringing the man to trial, few are really talking about the man’s motivations or what actually this means for freedom of speech in a world more connected than ever before. In fact, for revealing leaked documents what crime has he committed except to discomfort the powerful? Then again, as the powerful also point out, he has endangered lives of servicemen and women through these revelations.

The enormity of what Assange has done from an information perspective is incredible. Perhaps it’s the inevitable consequences of a world at war on many fronts for a myriad of reasons over the past decade that I would argue if Assange didn’t do it, then someone else would have. Eventually.

The question now, now that an arrest warrant has been issued by Sweden, is if Assange is being vilified or indeed guilty of the crimes he is alleged to have committed while in that country.

If the charges against what he is alleged to have done in Sweden are real, then shame on Assange.

But supposing for argument’s sake they are trumped up in a clumsy effort to shut him up or shut down Wikileaks then shame on Sweden and shame on the world.

Quite simply a new era has begun, secrets can no longer be kept forever. Perhaps it is time those in positions of power learned to behave better themselves? Or better still, not have secrets.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com