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Julian Assange and the information war

June 1, 2010

The 2007 video from an Apache helicopter of American soldiers killing at least eighteen people, including two Reuters journalist, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year, had a huge effect on me.  It was my first real introduction to the site.  I’d heard rumblings before; had never bothered to go see for myself.

The video haunted me.  WikiLeaks itself baffled me.  So when I wrote before, I focused on the video.

But I’ve been thinking about the site ever since.  So it’s no surprise that this piece in the New Yorker about its founder, Julian Assange, caught my attention.  Eleven pages later, I’m still uneasy.  And not just because of the personal oddities of Assange.

The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy. In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse. Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

The analysis has merit (as does the whole piece), but I still don’t know where to land.

I don’t believe, as Assange does, that humanity’s primary struggle is individual versus institution.  I don’t believe that total transparency is the key to either justice or equity.  I don’t even know that I believe transparency is particularly normative.

I do believe some institutional secret-keeping is legitimate.  And yet, I struggle to articulate the boundaries within which it is permissible.

And at the end of it all, I really appreciated that WikiLeaks published the video.

I’m still baffled.

I imagine WikiLeaks will get another post out of me before I’m done.

Jonas

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One comment

  1. Agreed–I think most of us have a love/hate relationship with the organization.



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