Wikileaks. The unassailable, inescapable subject-du-jour. I have done my level best not to blog about it, but I should have known it would be impossible for me to avoid getting sucked into the massive vortex of online opinion, rhetoric, posturing, and sanctimony, not to mention self-interested-cum-uninformed media coverage, that the issue has become.
I have been unable to make my mind up about the ethics of Wikileaks thus far. The whole thing is a much bigger and much more complicated subject than a lot of commentators can appreciate – certainly far too big for me to deal with comprehensively in a blog post. To fully consider it, one has to have one eye on its immediate effects, one eye on history, one eye on the various ethical interpretations being placed upon it, and a seagull’s eye-view of the whole thing. You just end up cross-eyed.
A few commentators have gone so far as to call this the first Information War. Whilst that is yet to be literally true, at least conceptually it’s a good place to start. Oh, there has been damaging information come out concerning both sides, and there have been a few skirmishes, with Anonymous taking it upon themselves to attack various organisations, and ddos attacks hitting Wikileaks, but these amount to little more than street brawls, to date.
The net has been bubbling for years over increasing attempts by authorities to regulate it and its content. The classic, if low-key indicator for this is that fact that Slashdot has had a “Your Rights Online” category of article for as long as I can remember containing in part many stories about encroaching regulation and other exertion of influence online. The net’s denizens subscribe to the philosophy that the net is beyond central regulation, in effect a digital High Seas, and that it should remain this way. The feeling is that the net started out as a free and unfettered thing, and for governments to attempt to exert control over it is unacceptable. Now, one could of course dismantle that logic in terms of the specifics, but the sentiment is more important and influential than the fine detail.
This is all about a lot more than transparency and honesty. Since 9/11, the towering paranoia of western world governments about the terrorism bogeyman has led to an inexorable tightening of regulation around day-to-day life. There seem to be a lot more rules than there used to be, and the net has been no exception. Couple that with the default background level of suspicion about the clandestine activities of government (witness cultural phenomena like the X-Files), its alleged murky ties to the business world, the increased military and intelligence-gathering activity over the past decade, and the slightly strange correlated increased levels of civilian authoritarianism that we keep hearing more and more about – the restrictions on photographers in London being a classic example – and people have started looking for justifications. Some people are starting to interpret the current state of affairs as the beginnings of repression. And the backlash has started.
This is an old story. Whenever ruling hierarchies of whatever ilk are perceived to have over-governed their citizenry to too great an extent, the citizenry reacts. Revolts, rebellions, revolutions, are all built upon the same foundation. The Wikileaks phenomenon and all of the support it has been receiving are the beginnings of a rebellion, and Assange is the revolutionary at its head. Like all revolutionaries, he is ideologically driven, which, whilst an expected piece of the picture, does serve to undermine the ostensible altruism in his motives. To what extent this matters has not yet been made clear. His martyrdom seems assured, however. He will likely be the William Wallace of the piece.
The thing about revolutionaries is that you can never tell how they are going to end up being judged by history. They usually end up with blood on their hands and have no compunction about it – revolutions generally demand blood. There is a certain amount of “the winners write the history books” at play, certainly, but even those rebels that ultimately lost can be remembered fondly – any number of Native American chiefs, Peter Lalor, Ned Kelly, Guy Fawkes, the American Confederacy, and the People’s Front of Judea (not so much the “Popular Front”, obviously).
But ultimately, we’re not going to be able to work out who’s good or bad in this one. It’s just going to have to play out, and history will have to be the judge. Come back in 20 years to see who ended up immortalised by the minstrels.
The fact of the matter is that, given the technology available to us in the 21st century, something like Wikileaks was always going to come along. It was inevitable. Inevitable also was the split that has just occurred therein to precipitate the advent of Openleaks. More and more organisations like this will spring up, split, merge, flourish, and wane. But the paradigm is here to stay, Pandora’s box is open.
The concept behind these sites and their place in the world will evolve with time, and they will become normalised. Their collective sense of ethics will develop to a point where all sides can live with their conduct, and ultimately they will form a natural part of the public information pipeline.
Democracy, for all of its lauded values, merely guarantees the people a vote concerning who is going to rule on their behalf. It promises nothing in the way of openness and honesty, and it says absolutely nothing whatsoever about corporate conduct. People’s expectations of democracy are a little high, really. This will be reflected in the fact that governments & corporations will initially try to stamp Wikileaks and its kind out of existence. They will of course fail, and only succeed in generating the impetus for more such organisations. They will eventually realise that the options they have are to be honest with the people to the extent that the whistleblowers have nothing to catch them out doing, or face the consequences of public humiliation having been caught out. Government & corporate secrecy in some matters is completely understandable, and should be accommodated by the rest of us. But government & corporate mendacities are unacceptable at any time. This change is not going to happen over night. Even in the democracies, the ruling classes have again risen to the top, and they have no interest in being assailed nor questioned. There is an air of privilege there still. It is this which is now under assault.
It is worth remembering that in the absence of one side being utterly annihilated in a conflict, and neither side here seem likely to fall thusly due to their fundamental natures, political, that is to say, agreed, solutions are the way that resolutions are achieved. There is belligerence and hubris aplenty on both sides. Once these are put to one side, a negotiated peace that everyone can live with can be achieved.