As the quantity of news surrounding the current tribulations of both WikiLeaks and its director Julian Assange continues to increase, I find that I am more inclined to attach the positive connotation of chutzpah to the Chutzpah of the Week award I granted to Assange at the end of November. At the very least this morning’s Associated Press dispatch by Cassandra Vinograd and Raphael G. Satter makes it clear that Assange recognizes the limitations of his own editorial capacities. This is why he has been playing out the documents to five major newspapers, “outsourcing” editorial judgments to their respective staffs. WikiLeaks is thus not the direct conduit from a whistle-blower to the World Wide Web that I originally took it to be. Rather, the organization recognizes the need for a mediating role and appears to have chosen a perfectly viable way to address that need.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how the media have been dealing with public reaction to the current flood of leaks. For the most part the media have sided with those whose oxen have been gored by the revelations; and, of course, most of those oxen happen to be American. Thus, we seem to get no end of reports of inflammatory reactions, many of which have taken this as an opportunity to resume hurling accusations of terrorism at anyone who happens to embrace a “thought that we hate,” to appropriate from the title of Anthony Lewis’ recent book on the First Amendment. This leads me to wonder about the extent to which the efforts to prosecute Assange in Sweden (and in the United Kingdom for extradition) have been motivated by heavy-handed pressure tactics coming from our own country. Thus, while I appreciate the potential for damage resulting from some of the WikiLeaks releases, I worry that there will be those who will make political gain through collateral damage to the foundations of our government, particularly where the Bill of Rights is concerned.
What makes me most uneasy is that the “official” reaction of our government to Assange and WikiLeaks comes dangerously close to the conduct of the People’s Republic of China in response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabo. However, while the situation in China has a lot to do with the stability of a prevailing culture (which, face it, most of us do not understand in the slightest), the WikiLeaks affair may well influence the future of the Internet, particularly where questions of governance are concerned. As I have observed in the past, most of those who develop, maintain, and evangelize the Internet tend to overlook matters of governance and may even see the Internet as a refuge from such matters. Then something ugly happens (as was the case with the death threats directed at Kathy Sierra); and we get a lot of throat-clearing and a paucity of clear thinking.
Once again we are back on the turf of Number 51 of The Federalist:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
WikiLeaks is a dispassionate “external control” that owes allegiance to no institution, governmental or corporate. In effect it uses the Internet as an “insurance policy” against the fact that none of us are angels. Unfortunately, this carries the corollary that those in government are not angels either, but they happen to be vested with considerable authority and the powers to exercise that authority. We now face a “clear and present danger” that the very governance of the Internet, deemed unnecessary by most of those who gave us that technology in the first place, will be brought to heel by those determined to thwart any exercise of “external control.”