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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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The WikiLeaks saga has brought many of these contradictions into sharper context, but they were already clearly visible before. Before he achieved fame, Assange was already surrounded by some very, very smart technologists – and now he has many more admirers in the tech world. To the extent to which Clinton’s Internet freedom agenda relies on their coding skills and brains to produce effective anti-censorship tools that can work in Iran and China, I think it’s in the State Department’s best interest not to make the kind of irresponsible and aggressive statements they have been making about Assange until now.

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Personally, I don’t think that the Internet should be treated like some sacred cow that should defy all regulation. All of this will become clear to politicians (and hopefully even to some geek activists) once the next genocide in some remote third-world country is perpetrated by folks armed with GPS-equipped smartphones that also enable them to listen to incendiary messages on the local radio. I’m sure that this would be the moment when many decision-makers would regret not having some kind of a “kill switch” over the Internet. Maybe this won’t happen – and maybe a “kill switch” is impossible; or maybe it would undermine human progress so much that the genocide is a risk we would be forced to accept. But I do think that it’s an important debate that needs to be had rather than be settled in some talk of the absolute universal principle of Internet freedom, as for example Bernard Kouchner did when he was French foreign minister last year.

Openness vs. privacy

Gardels: Finally, when speaking of limits on information, do you see a conceptual link with the controversy swirling around Facebook for, as some charge, peddling private information under the mantle of social networking?

Morozov: Well, there is a great irony in the fact that the very same people who so loudly demand open governments are often also the ones who value their privacy and hate to be tracked, even if tracking is relatively innocuous. It is really no consolation to anyone that the power of groups like WikiLeaks to challenge the state is increasingly matched by the power of the state to keep track of what its citizens are doing, either by gathering all of this data on their own or by simply contracting out to a myriad of small and nimble data-mining agencies.

The latter option bothers me especially because it’s far less monitored or understood by the public: We all get scared when we find out that the government knows what we browse online – but we are far less concerned about some private company knowing this. The question we rarely ask is: Why assume that the government won’t simply purchase this data from the private sector rather than compile on its own?

This only proves that the Internet can have both an empowering a disempowering effect on democratization – often even simultaneously. I am not sure if Assange and his associates actually grasp the fact that the only effective way to rein in the excesses of Facebook and Google when it comes to data protection is to have a strong government that can act decisively and autonomously. It’s also possible, of course, to simply find enough leaks about both companies and ruin them by disclosing their financial statements a quarter too early – but this won’t be a very responsible move. What is still not clear to me is how exactly WikiLeaks would be able to reconcile the need for a strong state to defend citizens’ privacy with their desire to minimize the power of the state by weakening its ability to profit from secrecy.

© 2010 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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