A non-partisan journal of the left.

Cypherpunks – freedom and the future of the internet

Thu 27th Dec 2012

With the release of the first batch of WikiLeaks secret data in 2006 the online site rapidly gained a reputation for investigative journalism, and for revealing classified data from anonymous sources. WikiLeaks is a non-profit organisation with the goal of bringing "important news and information to the public,” and “to publish original source material alongside news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Another of the organisation's goals is to ensure that journalists and whistleblowers are not jailed for emailing sensitive or classified documents. The online “drop box” was designed to “provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to its journalists”.

In 2010 WikiLeaks collaborated with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times to release a whole batch of classified US State Department diplomatic cables in redacted format. This created an international éclat and brought down the whole vindictive fury of the US government on Assange’s head as well as severe censure from its allies. As the founder and chief spokesperson of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, overnight was thrust into world-wide prominence. By those on the Left he was revered as a revolutionary icon and by the Right viewed as a heinous criminal who had overstepped the accepted norms of journalism. But many throughout the world considered that what he had done was a genuine contribution to media freedom and openness. WikiLeaks became the winner of the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award and the 2009 Amnesty International human rights reporting award (New Media). However, shortly after all the accolades, Assange the hero became a demonised fugitive.

In August 2010, Assange was invited to Sweden on a speaking tour and apparently had sexually relations with two women who, three days later, accused him of “rape and sexual molestation”, leading the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office to issue an arrest warrant for Assange. Whatever the truth about these allegations, Assange saw them as a means of trapping him in Sweden and eventually facilitating his extradition to the US. Unfortunately, whatever the truth of the matter, Assange suddenly became a figure of controversy, not to say one of revulsion, for alleged activities that had nothing to do with his role as the founder and advocate of WikiLeaks. In one sense his enemies had been partially successful: he had not as yet been put on trial in the USA but his name and that of WikiLeaks had been irredeemably besmirched.

I am one of those who remains sceptical of the Swedish allegations of sexual transgression, despite the gravity of the accusations, and I certainly remain an admirer of what he has done as a journalist to expose Western government hypocrisy and unnecessary secrecy. I remain convinced that in revealing the contents of diplomatic exchanges and emails, demonstrating the hypocrisy, deviousness and indeed criminality of the US and other governments, he has done us all a vital service.

This latest book, despite accolades from highly respected individuals like John Pilger, Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Wolf and Oliver Stone is often more irritating than illuminating, but it is also certainly a provocative and fascinating read. Written mainly in the form of a dialogue between Assange and his co-authors, Appelbaum, Müller-Maguhn and Zimmermann, it explores the proposition that the internet has become more of a big brother system of surveillance than a great new means of free and democratic communication.

It is written in a loose conversational style with much anorak jargon, rather than attempting to offer a clear distillation of ideas for a wider readership. However, it does provoke reflection.

Like all inventions, the internet is only a tool to be used or misused. With the concentration of all main servers in the USA, it does provide the corporate and political ruling elite enormous access to every user’s profile and personal details. It is a secret service agent’s dream come true. And we, its naïve and unwitting users provide these government and corporate agencies all the information they want through our Facebook, Twitter and Google pages and non-encrypted electronic exchanges.

While his enemies will call Assange simply paranoid (even though he has good reasons to be), he does argue persuasively that we are all too-readily handing over to the powers that be data about ourselves for free. He argues that only be utilising methods like cryptography to encrypt all the information we send out over the internet can we keep government and corporate noses out of our affairs.

Certainly the vitally important questions of who controls the internet and how we can ensure that it remains/becomes a genuine democratic source of information and exchange are of fundamental importance to freedom and democracy worldwide. Assange’s book is a wake-up call about a possible dystopian future.

Jeremiahs, like Assange, are as Pilger says, “always met at first with hostility and even mockery, history shows that we disregard such warnings as these at our peril.” While this book is certainly not the definitive treatise on the role of the internet, it is a stimulating and thought-provoking read.

Cypherpunks – freedom and the future of the internet

By Julian Assange with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann
OR Books Paperback £11

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/cypherpunks/

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