The cables, the leaks, and Assange

For some time now, it has been all but impossible to pick up a newspaper, or open any sort of news site without seeing the words “Wikileaks” or “Assange”; neither the site, nor its public face in the form of Julian Assange, need any introduction. Apparently inextricably embroiled with the existence of, and recent information releases by, the Wikileaks website, are the charges being laid against Julian Assange, and the conduct of the countries, governments, and law forces involved. The information varies wildly with each news report, and it seems that nothing is presented without bias – painting Assange either as a saviour, or as a demented rapist; the Wikileaks site, then, is his stone tablet, or his deadly weapon.

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that there are really two separate issues here (the legality/morality of the Wikileaks site, and the alleged crimes committed by Assange), and the two are now so linked in the media, and in the minds of the public, that I believe it will be very difficult to ensure that Assange is given fair treatment, and a fair trial (which he, like any other person, is entitled to). While various governments, right-wing pundits, and politicians may be queuing up to demonise Assange, the simple fact of the matter is that he has not been charged with anything to do with the Wikileaks site. Unfortunately, the name Julian Assange is now so entangled with the word Wikileaks that every mention of one inevitably brings with it information about the other.

Supporters of Assange have opined that the charges have only been brought as part of a character assassination attempt, and that they are untrue. Well, I have no more information than the rest of the public on those charges, and with arrest warrants and court documents yet to appear on the now infamous site itself, I can only go on what has been reported. While I would question the timing of the charges as a little suspicious or coincidental, the one thing of which I am certain is that Assange has the right to be treated as innocent until he is proven guilty, regardless of what websites he may own. Whether the charges have arisen now by design, or simply by (in)convenient timing, Assange’s detractors have leaped upon the charges with a fervour that can only be described as malicious. Assange has been labelled a sex criminal, and this has been used to draw both him, and the Wikileaks site into disrepute.

The fact of the matter is that any charges laid against him should be treated as distinct and separate from any personal feelings that potential jurors may have about the legal, moral, and other issues raised by the existence of the Wikileaks site. In my opinion, current media coverage of both issues has made this an impossibility. Although it is not right, Assange will not be tried only on the merits of the case against him, but also on whether people truly agree with the actions of the Wikileaks team.

So, what of infamous Wikileaks site? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure that I believe it to be worth the fuss. I’ve been aware of its existence for some time, and have often popped on to see if there are any interesting documents on it, but I believe that this current batch of leaked documents would not be so prominent in the media, and the minds of the public, if the respective governments had simply allowed it to pass, rather than getting all hot and bothered, and reacting in a completely overblown fashion. I understand that some documents are considered classified for good reason – to protect lives, to prevent damage, etc., but I also believe that greater transparency in the running of the various countries and governments is both important and necessary, because that confidential privilege has been terribly misused, and has allowed corrupt, amoral people to hide behind red tape and secrecy. While I recognise that it may be technically illegal, I believe that, to a certain extent, the governments, companies, and officials in question have brought it upon themselves by abusing their position, misusing secrecy laws, and recklessly flouting regulations that they had no right to ignore. As for their handling of the situation, it bespeaks a very poor level of understanding of the way information changes hands these days, and the motivations of those who pass that information. If they had wanted to keep secrets hidden, rather than making a fuss about the site, they should simply have released more communications – garbage ones. Bury the team in years of cables about what you would like for dinner, and dry-cleaning instructions, and it’s likely that few will persevere long enough to discover the corrupt dealings you ill-advisedly took part in.

Of course, it’s not the information theft that they find truly bothersome. Rather, it is the prospect of suddenly being held accountable in a new, and very public forum. For a long time, the line between private and public information has been blurred, and often to the detriment of the general public. Crimes have been hidden, indiscretions papered over, and money disappeared, all in the name of state secrecy. It is my belief that many of those in power have become complacent, lazy even, and consider some of these transgressions so routine that they do not even matter, but the fact is that, regardless of your position, you should not be above the law. If a private citizen steals money, they are caught, trialled, and punished. It is only recently that we have seen the same happen to government officials in the UK, who fiddled expense claims and cheated taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Anyone else guilty of the same must be feeling more than a little apprehensive at the moment, but this is what comes with adulthood – being responsible for, and accountable for, your own actions.

It seems to me that there is a real disconnect between generations. Those in power, many of whom are slightly older, are handling the situation extremely inexpertly, and that is largely down to a very poor understanding of those who would create a site like Wikileaks, those who would visit it, and those who will offer to host it as other providers pull the plug. Information is, and always has been, power. Those who have the information have a great resource that can be used to aid, or bludgeon, as they choose. In the past, it was easier to keep information hidden. Documents could only be accessed in hard copy, and it was simple to keep the public away from the filing cabinets that contained “need to know” information. This time is long gone, however, and the longer the politicians, officials, and companies take to acknowledge this, the more likely it is that they will never catch up.

I have grown up in an era where information is a very real commodity. Within my lifetime, archives have been digitised, mobile phones have become commonplace, and computers have become simple to use, and affordable to almost everyone – it is an age of ubiquitous computing. Like many, then, I am used to being able to get the information that I want quickly, easily, and most often, freely. And, also like many, I have become adept at finding the information that I want, even if it is not easy to do so. To me, the notion of extreme secrecy in the age of the internet seems absolutely laughable; for better or for worse, the internet is here to stay, and one thing holds true for almost all information that passes through its channels – once it’s online, it’s there forever.

It might be comforting for people to think that, if they were to revert to more traditional forms of communication, they would be in less danger of having their secrets spilled. It’s easy to forget, though, that before Wikileaks, before leaked PDF documents, hacked computers, and stolen email conversations, there were leaked photocopies, stolen faxes, bugged phones, and intercepted letters. Over time, the desire for transparency, for information availability, has grown. It has forced the passing of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act. It has created nations of people who are familiar with the terms “Privacy Policy”. And, perhaps most importantly at this moment, it all started long before Julian Assange burst onto our screens.

Do I think Wikileaks will change the world? Maybe, but probably not. In time, this current scandal will die down, and the site will probably fade. I do, however, think that it’s an important step along the way – just like those who fought to pass legislation allowing people to access information being held about them, Assange and his site will chip away a little more at the information barriers. It will open the door for a new generation of information brokers, and make it a little easier for them to exist. Finally, it serves to reaffirm the notion that information is power, and to emphasise that that information is no longer in the laps of the gods, but the hands of the people.