WikiPiques: Let’s all just calm down
John Abell is New York bureau chief for Wired.com. The opinions expressed are his own.
The pariah du jour to the United States and the countries who do business with it is one Julian Assange, a soft-spoken Australian whose motives may be obscure but whose life work is pretty clear. The founder of WikiLeaks, Assange is the whistleblower’s whistleblower, enabling the disclosure of anything in digital form — which, in the age of the Internet, is everything.
The drama to marginalize/silence/demonize Assange is playing out like a (bad) Hollywood script, but the stakes — to commerce, to free speech, to the freedom of the Internet — are quite real. It’s a good time to take a deep breath.
While critics portray Assange as the sort of caricature you’d expect to see as Batman’s arch nemesis he actually hews more to the suave Bond villain (sex scandal and all) — an international man of mystery whose calm demeanor is incongruous with a determination to blow things up.
Is he a devil? Well, it was an insufficiently-supervised U.S. government employee who allegedly absconded with enough dish to give the world agita, all crammed on a Lady Gaga CD. In another time, this player would have gone to a big newspaper and rolled the dice that it would care and could keep his name out of it.
But WikiLeaks is one-stop shopping for every media outlet on the planet, and anonymity is assured. Indeed, the only person accused of a crime in this episode, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, outed himself in a tragically poetic way: by sending incriminating instant messages to an acquaintance who then, as if on cue, shared them with the media.
The actual damage to U.S. national security by the WikiLeaks disclosures is debatable. But the threat level of embarrassment is positively DefCon 1 — just what you’d expect when something shared in private goes public. (By the way, it’s called “Facebook.”)
We’ve been down this road a couple of times now in the past few weeks. But a funny thing happened after the most recent WikiLeaks disclosure. Someone thought it would be “patriotic” to try to shut down their web site. And when Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal decided they could no longer do business with WikiLeaks, their web sites were targeted or threatened by sympathizers in a classic “No Justice, No Peace” parry.
Credit for these acts of vigilantism was taken by the hacking pranksters who once stuffed a digital ballot box to ensure that Justin Bieber’s World Tour would begin in North Korea. But that hasn’t prevented a somber media firestorm, with the “Anonymous” offensive portrayed as the first salvo in an unprecedented “cyberwar.”
We haven’t seen anything like this since those stark stories about the “unthinkable disaster” that would befall us when the Conficker worm was unleashed last year.
Oh — you missed Cybergeddon?
The internet is designed to be amazingly resilient. That’s why attempts to kill WikiLeaks — by hack, starvation or legislation — are futile. State players who try to put this genie back in the bottle would be aligning themselves with the world’s most oppressive regimes. But what about public companies, which don’t have an obligation to enable speech or commerce?
Putting aside the wisdom of Visa, Mastercard and PayPal to stop passing money to WikiLeaks from its supporters (while, ahem, not derailing the money train to actual hate groups), shouldn’t they be able to do whatever they want in the marketplace without being attacked in the marketplace of ideas?
It’s a tough call on the C Level, I suppose. But being “shocked, shocked” and appearing to capitulate to unreasonable pressure is a very slippery slope. It doesn’t even bear up well under immediate scrutiny. I mean, I can still use my credit cards to subscribe to Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times — media outlets which cooperated with WikiLeaks under embargo.
Aren’t all of them doing business with the devil?