WikiPiques: Let’s all just calm down

December 10, 2010

John Abell is New York bureau chief for 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?


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Further, organizations like Amazon, Paypal and Visa that call themselves “global businesses” have no business playing politics. Would Paypal have shut down Wikileaks for embarrassing the Chinese government? I doubt it. The Internet must remain free of censorship. As Tom Paine may have said it is good for kings and governments to be kept honest. And the public must be forever vigilant. I am an IT professional. I have stopped using Paypal to pay my monthly bills. I am looking for an alternative to AWS and will not buy from Amazon this Christmas. These companies built their fortunes on the back of the global consumer whose freedom of speech they are now helping to violate. Here lies a business opportunity for other companies that will not use market monopolies to muzzle adverse criticism of governments.

Posted by middleterm | Report as abusive

What a bag of common sense señor!,congratulations for a coherent and well written article!,thank you!

Posted by Alwinder | Report as abusive

the retaliation from the government(who made mastercard, visa and the rest pull the plug…really) has been very suppressive and one sided. If Assange is a criminal then all of his publishing accomplices are as well. Problem is, all but one publishing outlet are in other countries. Wouldn’t want to offend France now would we.
Governments have be a little more transparent in the governing of the world. Did Wikileaks give away strategic military positions?? No. How much damage was really done? Embarrassment only.

Posted by CC1955 | Report as abusive

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Posted by The first bit of common sense in a week… « hotfoot (aka foottothefire) | Report as abusive

What would happen if you were charged with say murder and when you went to pay your legal team you found out the bank had frozen your account because some friends had donated money to your defense.
How would you like your bank accounts to be frozen even before your are charged of a crime.To my knowledge this bloke has not been charged yet .He is still assisting police with their inquiries I think they call it.
The newspaper are publishing the leaks .In fact more people know about what the pollies said through the news then through wiki-leaks .Treason? no frozen bank accounts for them ? .Same info I am led to believe ?
. Mustn’t be a security leak if it gets on the news
And what about water gate why wasn’t the whistle blowers charged with something
Smells a lot like another David Hicks too me.

Posted by Fairgo | Report as abusive

Thru the eyes and work of Assange we get a sense of confirmation of two faced governments and leaders, saying noble things to appease the masses and having gastly, ulterior motives as the real agenda. How many millions have been killed in the name of “good governance?”. If materials have to be stolen for the common good of humanity then I am not in disagreement with wikileaks motives. One day, if good wins over evil, he may be ranked amongst saints. Right now, amongst all the leaders of the world, he is super-smart.

Posted by BenUSA | Report as abusive

“shouldn’t they be able to do whatever they want in the marketplace without being attacked in the marketplace of ideas?” Nope. I can act like a fool in public, but that doesn’t mean I’m entitled to not be smacked like a fool in public. Sure, it might be against the law for someone to smack me, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen or that it’s not right. Some fools just need to be smacked.

Posted by miketkong | Report as abusive

Wheare does the Human Right Activists go…! Politicians Has Already Accepted the millennium as the Age of Information and “Thinking”.
They ware telling us and we ware hearing their lies over a decade. Julian Assange has falsified the preach with evidence, he is the real man of the Era. We should have to go with time. Please give our minds peace…! Prison is not a compatible place for peoples like Julian Assange, they can change the world. At least we should have to respects his knowledge.

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Posted by Growth in sales of digital downloads slows to a trickle « Technology | Report as abusive

“employee who allegedly absconded with enough dish to give the world agita, all crammed on a Lady Gaga CD”

Was that English??

Posted by beliha | Report as abusive

“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?”

In an actual free market, your argument would be persuasive. However, no such market exists here. While the internet does exhibit dynamics that _tend_ toward freedom, it does not have the power to change an environment in which inept companies, with no competencies save those of skilled mercantilist, corporatist, government suck-ups, are granted market sector monopolies and artificially high entry barriers; all enforced by government’s claimed monopoly on violence. So in this case, the answer to your question is “no”, because those companies did not rightfully _earn_ the power and position that they are using to try to throttle Wikileaks. Another factor against your argument is the power that has been granted to these mercantilists by government to arbitrarily seize the assets in the account of any user whom they toss, under a very permissive set of conditions. How many millions of USD in unearned revenue do you think that Amazon, Paypal, et al have made by way of this kind of unjust, unmoderated confiscation of donations to Wikileaks? That isn’t the marketplace at work, sir, that is thuggish robbery by internet highwaymen, pure and simple.


Posted by VinnyG | Report as abusive

@VinnyG Well, I would argue that the internet does have that very power (though I might not use a word like “inept”) — Amazon, Skype, eBay, Google and yes, even PayPal challenged established business models and behemoths in their respective industry and changed everything.

On your other point, I am not clear. Are you saying that MasterCard and Visa have the right to attach earings and property if a customer reaches a certain status of delinquency? If so I’m not sure I have a problem with that, in principle.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

@MikeTKong. I am sort of making that argument by inference. I think some people get confused about what a company “can” do — does it have the “right” to do such and such.

The answer is that a company is entitled to do whatever the law and its contracts allow. In other words, nobody can prevent Visa, MC and PayPal from cutting off WikiLeaks (except WikiLeaks if it chooses to fight back). But these companies will nevertheless be judged in the market for their behavior, even if the government can’t toss them in jail.

A good analogy is the hiring sweatshop workers overseas. Perfectly legal. However, your customers may not like this. They will punish you, not the International Court in The Hague.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

@beliha It strikes you not how? If yours is a criticism about style, however, you aren’t the first to object to that sentence.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive