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Global Viewpoint

WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and the dark side of Internet freedom

Evgeny Morozov discusses the implications of WikiLeaks on open vs. closed societies, the paradox of attacking state power, and the future of Internet privacy.

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Only if we, or he himself, knew his theoretical template of a totally free information society could we then draw limits on what is acceptable or not.

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Geopolitical fallout

Gardels: What is the likely geopolitical outcome down the road from this latest WikiLeaks episode?

Will it pit not only more closed societies against open societies, but also open societies with secrets against the extreme glasnostics – a kind of three-tiered clash of information cultures?

In the end, will it make closed societies more open and open societies more closed? Or, will it make everyone more closed?

Morozov: I think it will be intelligence gathering – and especially intelligence sharing – rather than diplomacy per se that would suffer the most. The reason why the current batch of cables got released in the first place was lax security; with a few million people having access to these files, it’s really surprising that it took so many years for someone like [alleged leaker] Bradley Manning to actually release them to Assange. But this could have happened even before WikiLeaks took off the ground a few years ago; these cables may have just been sent to the Guardian or El Pais directly. So in all likelihood we’ll see a more granular approach to setting permissions as to who gets access to what kind of data. Ambassadors will keep talking.

This, however, is not the most interesting geopolitical aspect to the WikiLeaks story. What I found most interesting in the 10 or so days since the files were released was the pressure that various American and some European politicians tried to exert on various Internet intermediaries that were offering their services to WikiLeaks. Some of those efforts paid off – with Amazon and PayPal dropping WikiLeaks as a client. This, of course, looks very suspicious to many computer geeks, who are already often very suspicious of governments.

What I think might happen is that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in particular would emerge as leaders of a new political “geek” movement that would be built on the principles of absolute “Internet freedom,” transparency, very permissive copyright law, and so on. This movement has already been brewing globally – especially in Europe, where various local cells of the Pirate Party have proved remarkably strong. It’s quite possible that the “hunt for WikiLeaks” would further radicalize young people and make them join the fight for the “Free Internet,” however they choose to interpret.

This may be wonderful news – especially if they renounce violence and start participating in mainstream politics instead, thus becoming something of a digital equivalent to the Green Movement in Europe. The other option, alas, is far less amenable: It’s possible that if Assange is really treated badly and unjustly by the authorities – and possibly even tried like a “terrorist” as some prominent US politicians have suggested – this would nudge the movement toward violent forms of resistance. Given that many of these people are tech-literate and that more and more of our public infrastructure is digital, this could be a significant impediment to the growth of the global economy: Just think of the potential losses if Visa and MasterCard cannot process online payments because of some mysterious cyberattacks on their servers.

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