Global Agenda: Shut up or shut down

To say that WikiLeaks is source of annoyance, embarrassment and concern to governments throughout the world would be a massive understatement.

December 2, 2010 23:15
4 minute read.
Pinchas Landau

Pinchas Landau blog photo. (photo credit: Courtesy)

To say that the activities of WikiLeaks are a source of annoyance, embarrassment and concern to governments throughout the world – but primarily, of course, the Western world – would be a massive understatement. The systematic leaking of huge numbers of government documents of various sorts and on various topics has gone well beyond causing mere annoyance or generating mere concern.

One very simple and very crude measure of just how fierce the reaction of the governments of democratic countries is becoming with regard to WikiLeaks and its boss, Julian Assange, is the following extraordinary fact: On Tuesday, Tom Flanagan, who is a senior adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, called for Assange’s assassination. Not in a secret meeting that was bugged or in some private conversation that was leaked.

No, Flanagan made his call on live TV, on CBS News, no less. Hardly surprisingly, although hardly flatteringly to him, his government and his country, Flanagan’s comments were compared to the televised “fatwa” issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini against British writer Salman Rushdie in February 1989.

Maybe Assange will meet with an “accident” or simply be rubbed out. Maybe the British police, who supposedly know where he is hiding, will arrest him. We may even have a reprise of the classic line from Casablanca, when Captain Renault says: “We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape” – because there is a strong desire, to which Flanagan perhaps unwisely gave public voice, to be rid of this turbulent and trouble-making individual.

But the WikiLeaks phenomenon is not about this or that individual. It is quite obvious that the Western governments have to be rid of the whole organization. WikiLeaks itself will have to be put out of business. And to this end there are reports that Amazon, whose servers allow it to function, is being pressured to pull the plug on it in an operational sense. Shutting it down would shut it up.

However, it doesn’t take long to realize that silencing WikiLeaks is not going to solve anything beyond the most immediate aspect of the real problem: the Internet.

Any serious discussion of the WikiLeaks issue must not be sidetracked by the persona of Assange and whether he raped or merely consorted with women in Sweden, or whatever else he ends up being charged with. If WikiLeaks is silenced tomorrow, numerous other organizations will take its place the next day, with the number of leakers and the quantity of material being leaked to them increasingly exponentially.

“What we have here,” to upend another classic movie quote, this time from Cool Hand Luke, is not “a failure to communicate,” but precisely the opposite: an excessive ability to communicate. So the fundamental clash that is building around the WikiLeaks issue is over free speech, the right to disseminate information and the right to access information that has been made available. The medium in question is the Internet, the openness of which has come to be regarded as sacred and to be upheld in all but the most extreme circumstances. Even pedophilia is not to be interfered with, according to some.

WikiLeaks is not in the pornography or racist or other classically problematic areas of dissemination. It is publishing purely political material, and this time it’s not Burma, China or Iran that is the victim, but rather the Western democracies, which actually believe in free speech and practice it – up to a point. Where that point is has long been a vexed issue; shouting fire in a crowded theater is the classic example of abuse of free speech.

But whether revealing what American diplomats in Israel or Germany said about their host country’s leadership may well not be so clear-cut a case.

On the other hand, making it difficult if not impossible to conduct foreign or defense policy (and further leaks will soon extend the problem to other areas of policy) creates the threat of anarchy. At least, that’s how it looks to the governments and civil servants of virtually every country, even liberal ones. So the arguments between libertarians and authoritarians about the limits of free speech – and other rights – are going to rapidly mutate to the political center, becoming rows over policy between liberals and conservatives.

Because this is happening in an increasingly nervous and insecure world – in which many countries feel themselves under geopolitical threat from the likes of North Korea and Iran, and most households perceive themselves as threatened by the loss of their homes, their jobs or their pensions – both peoples and governments are much more easily rattled.

In this atmosphere, governments will find it much easier to convince their citizens that tough measures – even the sort that were “unthinkable” not long before – are now essential. Do not expect the Internet to survive as an open arena for much longer, and don’t expect the change in the sociopolitical environment to stop at the Internet.

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