Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Assange & The Assault on Internet Exchange

For some time, various attempts have been made to curtail the freedom of the movement of data across the spectrum of the internet, or World Wide Web. Advocates of such control cite the "usual suspect" priorities, in an effort to persuade governments, and companies, to engage in censorship of various kinds.

The internet is a new animal. Unlike the telephonic system, it's in continuous use, and the amount of data which flows through its connections is unimaginably huge, dwarfing all previous forms of media. Any attempt to "control" this flow would undoubtedly involve complex legal issues in every country of the world. In China, specific sites have been blocked by the government, in an attempt to prevent its population from being exposed to certain political and cultural information, thought to be dangerous to its (the Peoples Republic of China) continued existence and security.

Julian Assange's WikiLeaks website has been much in the news lately, for releasing "secret" war log records of the United States military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Previous to this, Assange had been recognized for having exposed various cover-ups and criminal acts around the world through his WikiLeaks site. The worry over the possible effects of the release of this kind of information in the world community has been growing exponentially over the last few weeks and months, as the width and depth of the WikiLeaks has continued to expand. What are the implications of Assange's agenda, and what can or should be done about his activities on the internet?

Secrecy, as a method of addressing and carrying out the policies of powers (governments), has been around for as long as the organization of people into social groups. Sensitive matters, which could not be negotiated out in the open, especially those involving strategic planning and implementation during wartime conditions, have historically been conducted surreptitiously, by word of mouth, or by "secure" media.

But secrecy is a two-edge sword. We may wish to use secrecy to outwit or outflank our enemies, yet we may condemn secrecy when it's employed to conceal corruption or atrocities or lies. We're perfectly happy to see the internet as a tool in the political, economic and cultural opening up of China, but we're very unhappy if our private conversations with the Arab ruling families reveals our true aims towards Iran. Sometimes, embarrassment is worse than the enemy knowing your war plans.

Since the birth of democracy in the West, there's been a continuing debate about how much secrecy is necessary, and beneficial, for the conduct of domestic and foreign policy. In a democracy, information--the free flow of information among the citizenry--is counted as one of the great gifts of freedom. We go out of our way to protect freedom of speech (expression), freedom of the press, and the freedom of individual citizens to gain access to the information which enables us to make correct, informed, decisions. If we agree to allow the government to decide for us, what we're allowed to hear of, or know about, events and opinions, we've crossed a line to a regime of fascistic propaganda.

Most people would agree that, in the prosecution of important, delicate, negotiations, and in the conduct of armed conflict, certain degrees of secrecy (secret communications) are necessary, even vital, to our welfare. But the question arises as to who gets to decide where that line should be drawn, between things the public should not be allowed to know, and what it should.

In a healthy democracy, the public press can function as the "watchdog" of government policy and behavior. The press is the first organ, in any non-democratic regime, which comes under scrutiny, given its power to reveal, to uncover, to question. No dictatorship can afford to tolerate a free press, because information is power, and no oligarchy can afford to allow another power to question its policies or methods.

The 20th Century saw the rapid growth and increasing sophistication of all methods of secret activity at all levels of government throughout the world. Governments, and alliances, have increasingly felt this need to protect information, to conduct activities and campaigns in secret, and in some cases to make some kinds of information permanently secret. Secrecy as a principle of conduct has become so ingrained in the modern political conscience, that hardly anyone thinks to question the legitimacy of what the government does behind closed doors, or over the media lines of communication, assuming that whatever is exchanged is unchallengeable. During the Nixon Administration, we saw to what lengths people would go to use secrecy to conduct affairs at the highest levels of our government, and we saw, too, the value of whistle-blowing, or the principled revelation of carefully guarded secret activities and communications, by those in a position to shine the bright light of public attention upon them.

I don't know much about Julian Assange, but I've heard it reported that he has a staunchly anti-American stance, that he feels America's actions and influence around the globe need to be moderated, and that one of the chief methods for doing so is to reveal its secret machinations and communiqu├ęs, causing it embarrassment, and tempering its power to manipulate events through non-public influence and pressure. It's difficult to see Assange as an agent of disinterested public good, if he harbors such negative feelings about America's place in world affairs.

However, the kind of secrets which may be damaging to a country's reputation, as against those which may be so sensitive as to affect actual events when revealed, is also a difficult distinction to draw. Ordinarily, governments rate secrets by degree of sensitivity. The greater the degree of secrecy, the fewer people (theoretically) who can be trusted with them. This has been a principle of political secrecy for centuries. How many secrets can any government successfully guard? What kinds of secrets should be assigned to just a handful of people, and what kinds need only to be guarded for a little while, until they "time out" and can become public knowledge?

In a war like that which we are engaged in Afghanistan, the "sides" may become blurred, and friends and enemies may change sides frequently. Today's enemy combatant may be tomorrow's "informer" upon whose report may depend the lives a whole regiment of foot-soldiers holed up in a mountain encampment. Obviously, an army has a vested interest in relying on the secrecy of such undercover contacts in a world where allegiances and protected sources are matters of life and death.

But too often, governments, and government officials tend to think habitually of everything as a form of privileged secrecy, including the things they'd rather their own people don't find out about. Policy decisions, for instance, or secret directives, may be openly contradictory to espoused positions, betraying public friends or selling out allies. It may be "convenient" to put out a contract on a certain individual, or there may be "collateral deaths" which far outweigh the presumed value of a certain strike. Such decisions, like those who make them, may be highly controversial. What is the public entitled to know about decisions like these, and when can such secrets be "safely" revealed, if ever? When are we using secrecy to hide our own lack of conviction, our failures, or our unethical behavior? When does secrecy become just a cover for illegal, immoral or indefensible actions?

These are questions for which I have no easy answer. It may be that Assange has crossed the line in knowingly revealing the names of observers or informants "on the ground" in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I'd be cautious in assuming that this is the real reason Assange is being pursued in the international community. In wars, as our former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld correctly reminded us, "things get messy." People are killed who shouldn't be killed, buildings are knocked down, and stuff is stolen. But in the larger scheme of things, one wants the means to justify the ends. In a democracy, the means must be continually weighed to determine whether they can be kept secret for the right reasons, instead of just for convenience, and saving face. Clearly, saving face doesn't meet that test.

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