No, this post is not about any sundry criminal, terrorist or would-be supreme potentate of the world. This is about Julian Assange, and why he and his colleagues might just change democracy as we know it.
Assange is a child of the internet, on a level with Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin or Jimmy Wales. He too is famous because of a website he co-founded – WikiLeaks. Except, this is one website that has rattled governments and corporations, and might, might just, go the way of another website that once promised to change the world – Napster.com
His website is hosted in countries like Sweden where revealing journalistic sources is actually a crime. He uses that legal protection to provide a platform for whistleblowers around the world to post data that embarrasses the big guys, without placing themselves in any danger of prosecution (or worse). An election in Kenya swung by 10% (claim not verified) after leaks about its government corruption appeared on the site. The leak of the emails that gave the impression that at least some climate research results were manipulated was seen as instrumental in derailing the Copenhagen Summit.
Assange was part of a controversy earlier this year, though not directly, over the US military action in Iraq. But that was simply because the source – one Bradley Manning (‘bradass’ to his comrades) – blew his cover by boasting to a friend, who promptly squealed (sorry, I know that’s a word with negative meanings, but I think it applies here). WikiLeaks and its backers are now heading the legal defence of Bradley Manning, in a case compared to the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times leak that played a key role in turning US public opinion against the Vietnam War.
But what has now happened overshadows everything else. The disclosure of over 91,731 documents pertaining to the current War in Afghanistan (the Afghan War diary) has sent shockwaves throughout the world. And unlike other leaks, which are directly published on the site, these were revealed to the world in a carefully choreographed move. The New York Times (USA’s leading liberal paper), The Guardian (the UK’s liberal paper) and Der Spiegel (Germany’s leading paper, often perceived as having a liberal tilt) were given access to the documents, and they helped sift the information so that leaks that might endanger the lives of people were not revealed. The three papers published leading stories covering the leaks on 25 July 2010, and WikiLeaks revealed them on its site on the same day.
As this post has become too long, we’ll carry on in the next episode.