Today’s lead news in the UK is the arrest of Wikileaks (which is actually not a ‘wiki’ at all, ironically) founder Julian Assange. He’s been arrested following allegations of sexual assault in Sweden and it’s important to separate that from other allegations that he may have broken other laws by publishing leaked US Government information. Or is it?
Sweden certainly has a robust legal system and the allegations there are serious ones. And while seems odd to laypersons that the lawyer representing the alleged victims is also a politician, Assange’s lawyers are themselves being a little cute by presenting Claes Borgstrom as a politician, rather than a lawyer, when they have complained vociferously about the US’s clumsiness in conflating the roles of their client (Assange) and themselves. That said, they are very media-savvy and the situation is, er, unusual. Things haven’t been helped, of course, by lunatic assertions from very senior politicians of the US right that Asange should face execution or extra-judicial assasination; or indeed to say, as one Senator has, that if Assange hasn’t broken any laws then the laws should be changed retrospectively in order to engineer an extradition. That kind of talk is actually quite disgraceful and can surely only serve to damage the US’s image abroad. But to be fair on the US administration itself, most of its public comment has been measured as they consider whether Asange’s publishing has indeed broken any of their laws.
And has he? Well, he’s a publisher. He didn’t leak the information himself. And the follow-through by The New York Times (and the UK’s Guardian, along with one paper in German and one in France) suggests that there would likely be a strong ‘public-interest’ defence in respect of at least some of the information he (and they) have published. It’s certainly hard to imagine the US Government going after the editor of the NY Times. Or us banging up Alan Rusbridger (hmmm). And what about all the other ‘publishers’ who have re-broadcast the same material through mirror websites? And why stop there? Why not also go after the ISPs too? Moreover, no-one’s yet been able to say what actual serious harm has been done by the leaks. Only evidence, not supposition, will really suffice in that respect.
No, my instinct (admittedly not always, er, flawless) is that arrest and trial will probably stop at the alleged leaker. Meanwhile, Assange may simply have to accept that when you’re on the wrong side of the most powerful interests in the world, if you have a (alleged) weak flank then it’s unlikely to go un-noticed.
The media has, understandably, placed human drama at the centre of the story. That will fade, albeit not for a while yet. I wrote below of how I think the many deeper questions around the ways new media has inextricably altered the relationship between state and citizen, and I don’t doubt that over time governments will have to adjust to higher levels of transparency than they yet seem able to imagine.
For the moment, it’s clear that there’s a lot of barking going on but biting seems unlikely. Quietly, democratic administrations the world over will be ditching outmoded assumptions about information management and control. If they don’t, their bluff will be called time and time again by a million Assanges. Non-democratic states won’t be immune either, although the dynamics in places like China will naturally be different. In the end, though, the true meaning of the Assange saga lies in the fact that new media; the cloud, social media, and all the rest of it, has has been epoch-changing. That’s been obvious to a minority for a long time, but governments are only now just waking up to it.
When The Digitial Economy Act went through the UK parliament on the nod earlier this year, most politicians had little interest. This mirrored what went on in most parliaments across the world. The political mainstream viewed the whole business as largely technical and mainly about the scrap between ‘creators’, like musicians and journalists, and ‘disseminators’, like Google and the ISPs. Suddenly, through the Wikileaks episodes, that’s all changed. In truth, there’s now nothing more imperative in the political firmament. And that of itself can’t be a bad thing, can it?