Now is a critical moment in the WikiLeaks saga that began to unfurl in earnest this year. Yesterday, a break-away faction within WikiLeaks started their own competing outlet, OpenLeaks (or at least a “Coming Soon” placeholder site), which will merely serve a role as an intermediary for leaked information, eschewing WikiLeaks’ policy of posting leaked material in full on its website with analysis of its own. Today, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will attend court in London for extradition proceedings, where competing extradition requests from Sweden, which is investigating the accusations against him by Anna Ardin and Sofia Wilén, and the United States, which sees to try him under its 1917 Espionage Act.
In the meantime, the pressure from the United States against WikiLeaks has engendered an even stronger counter-reaction from the hacker community and advocates of free speech and a free press, leading to the rapid growth in WikiLeaks mirror servers and a rash of distributed denial-of-service attacks against Visa, Mastercard, and the Swiss Bank PostFinance for cutting off funds to WikiLeaks as well as Amazon, for dropping their server support. All the while, diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department continue to trickle into the public eye.
So, it is difficult to predict what will happen to WikiLeaks over the course of the next few months and years. However, the rise of WikiLeaks to the world’s attention will likely signal a new relationship between the press and Western governments and if Assange has his way, a lesser amount of trust within those governments. The day after the embassy cable leaks were started, Aaron Bady posted a link to two articles authored by Julian Assange at the end of 2006, with an analysis detailing their meaning and how it applies to the current situation at his blog zunguzungu. I highly recommend that anyone wanting to get a foothold on the philosophy that drove the creation of WikiLeaks read those two articles and Bady’s analysis does a nice job of providing context.
The essays are not all encompassing and WikiLeaks has not remained a static entity since its inception. Another source of insight comes from this panel discussion held in San Francisco this April in which Julian Assange features prominently. As well, last week, before Assange turned himself in to Scotland Yard, he answered questions emailed in from readers of The Guardian. One of his more interesting answers came to a question asking about his views of Western governments:
The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be “free” because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free. In states like China, there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has power and power is scared of it. We should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction. The attacks against us by the US point to a great hope, speech powerful enough to break the fiscal blockade.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to discern the precise impact that Assange hopes to achieve with WikiLeaks. Does he see Western governments and the United States in particular as conspiracies whose vast influence allows for a great deal of injustice, thus leading him to work to weaken their function as a whole, or is his attention focused on conspiratorial networks within those governments whose aims force the governments in directions away from the Enlightenment values he believes that they should enshrine, or is his view even more nuanced an complicated?
Regardless, Assange’s intentions are not the only variable steering events. Those of the U.S. Government will also play a role in shaping the future, as will the leaks’ portrayal by the media and their interpretation by the masses. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal posted an interview between Paul Gigot and former attorney general Michael Mukasey regarding the use of the 1917 Espionage Act as a means for the United States to try Assange for the leaks. One of the more chilling passages comes when Gigot asks about application of the law to other new services:
Gigot: Well, a lot of publishers would argue that if you go after Assange, then how do you stop at him and not go after, say, the New York Times or other newspapers that might have published the cables as well, albeit with a little more responsibility and discretion, sorting them out a little better?
Mukasey: You exercise discretion. And the answer to that may be that perhaps the New York Times ought to hesitate before doing something like that.
I sincerely hope that if Eric Holder agrees with Mukasey here, that the Supreme Court has the wisdom to disagree and prevent further erosion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While I recognize that some erosion has already occurred and I realize that it is possible for governments to act outside of the bounds of their own laws, I would like to minimize the amount of discretion legally available to the government to exercise in attacking news outlets and I do like the notion of a government kept on its toes for threat of the press more than its reverse.
All this raises some significant dangers. The reaction from the U.S. government may be one of further clamp down on internal openness and a curtailing of the American press, forcing our republic in a more authoritarian direction. On the other hand, this may force some much needed introspection in Washington on the role of secrecy in the handling of matters of state. Either way, it seems as if some large changes in the relationship between our government, the press, and the people are coming over the horizon.