Crowdsourcing Freedom of Information
- non-profit, volunteer-run whistleblowing organization
- anti-corruption, anti-collusion, pro super-transparency.
- directed by Australian hacker-cum-journalist Julian Assange
- regularly pisses a lot of the world off
- fundamentally controversial and central to modern practice of freedom of speech.
I’m not sure what first brought Wikileaks to my attention – but I immediately loved the idea. For however long it is that people have had secrets, particularly about wrongs they committed, other people privy to those secrets have wished that there was some way they could get the word out. There has been a longstanding need for humanity to have some sensible means of uncovering the injustices done by those who watch over us and run our lives.
The institution of journalism itself was supposed to have this covered, and yet it clearly does not. Wikileaks has apparently released a higher number of classified or confidential documents than the combined efforts of every other press institution worldwide. This should be taken as a failing of the press institutions of the world, rather than an example of how great Wikileaks is, notes Assange.
We’ll look a bit at Assange himself first, as it seems the best way to understand this tool may be in the context of its creator, then at some of the accomplishments Wikileaks has come through, and finally the reasons why one might not want Wikileaks to exist, and the controversy surrounding it.
Advocating transparency from behind a veil of mystery
Julian Assange was closely tied into the hacker community in Australia in the 80s, and operated under the handle Mendax. He hacked into an Australian Nortel node and an Aussie university around 1988, and his home was raided by federal authorities soon after. He went to trial terrified, but felt that his white-hat intent was meaningful and would cast a different light on his acts. He was in the system for information and out of curiosity, not for profit or joy of destruction. He decided to plead guilty to several of the charges brought forth and ended up only paying a fine as a result of his good behaviour in court and also the judge’s understanding of his intent (look for the word ‘surf’ in the article). In my eyes, this makes him a pretty cool guy.
In the book Underground, written by Suelette Dreyfus with all research done by Assange himself, a great deal of the culture and events of the international hacking community of the 80s are explored. Around page 53, the book is focusing on Mendax, and we can see it corroborating what he told interviewers at The New Yorker.
For a clever sixteen-year-old boy, the place was dead boring. Mendax lived there with his mother; Emerald was merely a stopping point, one of dozens, as his mother shuttled her child around the continent trying to escape from a psychopathic former de facto. The house was an emergency refuge for families on the run. It was safe and so, for a time, Mendax and his exhausted family stopped to rest before tearing off again in search of a new place to hide.
Sometimes Mendax went to school. Often he didn’t. The school system didn’t hold much interest for him.
When Assange turned sixteen, he got a modem, and his computer was transformed into a portal. Web sites did not exist yet—this was 1987—but computer networks and telecom systems were sufficiently linked to form a hidden electronic landscape that teen-agers with the requisite technical savvy could traverse. Assange called himself Mendax—from Horace’s splendide mendax, or “nobly untruthful”—and he established a reputation as a sophisticated programmer who could break into the most secure networks.
This is really cool – because it means that we have some tremendous insight across this book and particularly across the character of Mendax into Assange’s outlook on life and the experiences that shaped him, which led to Wikileaks being what it is now. The New Yorker article goes on to state that he had a protracted battle for custody of his child, and at the same time he worked alongside his mother to attempt to persuade government employees in the Australian Child Protective Services to leak internal information about the problems with the system. As late as 1999 he was active in this respect, and in 1999 he obtained the domain name leaks.org. This suggests strongly that the idea of Wikileaks is Assange’s originally, and that the idea is based off of his experiences during that court case and fighting a bureaucracy for what he considered to be the safety of his child.
Wikileaks has put out more information than I can cover reasonably here. The wikipedia page (also linked above) is the best resource for reviewing what important documents and information has come forth through the site, but I will present a short list here:
Bagdhad Shooting Video
Reuters journalists, civilians, and both armed and unarmed insurgent fighters were killed by a Helicopter crew.
September 11th, 2001 Pager Records for New York City
All pager traffic from the date of September 11th, 2001, showing a great deal of Fire, Police, and Ambulance traffic and their responses, as well as the responses of various electronic systems to the 9/11 attacks.
NATO Master Narrative for the Middle East
The NATO Master Narrative is a definition of the storytelling elements to be used and avoided when speaking about the war in the Middle East. This document discusses how to frame and spin discussions related to the Middle East to keep certain allies and enemies straight, and to paint a consistent picture of the objective of the NATO troops within the region. As a note of curiosity, the password to these documents was the word “progress”.
Sarah Palin’s use of Yahoo email addresses to avoid public records laws
A member of 4chan (specifically, the son of a Democratic member of the House of Representatives) hacked into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email account and publicly exposed her emails through Wikileaks. His identity was outed through other means, specifically a proxy server he utilized that gave up his identity, but the documents themselves remained on Wikileaks and showed clearly that Palin was dodging laws in an uncouth manner.
Scientology OT manuals
In response the the printing of a small amount of Scientology material, lawyers from the Church of Scientology sent a cease and desist, threatening legal action. In response, Wikileaks released several thousand additional pages of copyrighted Scientology material.
Afghan War Diary
Over 90,000 pages of documents spanning 2004-2009 showing continued, consistent events wherein humans are maimed, killed, or emotionally ruined by the actions of US forces, often in error and often by accident. It is an account of the toll that war takes, of what war is in modern times. Some greater controversy arose over this set of documents than others.
The greatest reasons which have been put forth to date for “Why Wikileaks should not exist and publish such documents” has been privacy. There has been expressed concern that privacy for small parties or individuals is often being jeapordized by the releases of such large volumes of information.
Wikileaks (through Julian Assange) responded that whenever possible, documents have been held for a number of months to allow for the smaller interests who could be considered collateral damage to find protection and for the value of information about them in particular to decrease. Additionally, Wikileaks does take pains to avoid inclusion of personal information for individuals and small parties who are innocent and not involved as stakeholders in the confidentiality of the document.
Some others have cited concerns for National Security. Assange has an excellent rebut, “We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in justice. We are a supranational organisation. So we’re not interested in national security.” With a fell swoop, Wikileaks is placed above the issue of National Security, because of course, it is above the level of a Nation. It is not in Wikileaks’ interests if any one nation is less or more secure – it is in Wikileaks’ interests that justice (under whatever definition Mr. Assange holds for it) is served.
There is controversy over everything about Wikileaks: the way it is run, Assange’s private life, possible smear campaigns, small-scale personal information, overhyping of information, editing or doctoring of information, coersion to steal secrets, national security concerns, moral concerns – everything Wikileaks does ends up being debated by someone.
It could be argued that this is necessary, and exactly what is intended. By doing work that no one else seems capable of doing, Wikileaks is making it possible for others to follow in its footsteps, and it is making debate and open discourse about sensitive materials a “normal idea”. Whistleblowing will become an expected part of a corporation and a government’s planning process, and Assange explains best why that matters (From 53 seconds on particularly):
Some people may feel that Wikileaks should not be allowed to say what it does. They believe that it should, in some manners, be silenced, censored, edited, or controlled. After looking at the chief editor of Wikileaks, and having seen a great deal of the material the website has published, my opinion remains resolved.
Anyone who says that freedom of speech should be revoked in special cases is welcome to say it, but to implement such a system would be to welcome injustice. Julian Assange, through what I can only believe is ultimately his own creation, Wikileaks, is fighting to preserve and restore justice – by providing a means of true freedom of speech with regard to government wrongs when no other person has. I thank him, and am a donator to the Wikileaks project.
Citations and Links used during Research
- Barrowclough, Nikki. (2010, May 22). Fairfax Digital. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/the-secret-life-of-wikileaks-founder-julian-assange-20100521-w1um.html
- Khatchadourian, Raffi. (2010, June 7). Conde Nast Digital. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/06/07/100607fa_fact_khatchadourian?printable=true
- McGreal, Chris. (2010, April 5). Guardian News and Media Limited. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/05/wikileaks-us-army-iraq-attack
- Guilliatt, Richard. (2009, May 30). News Limited. The Australian. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/defence/rudd-government-blacklist-hacker-monitors-police/story-e6frg8yx-1225718288350