Wikileaks, Napster, and the Ayatollah Flanagan

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks

Wikileaks and Napster

In an Assange interview published by the Guardian on Friday 3 December 2010,  Assange says:

“Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free. In states like China, there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has …power and power is scared of it. We should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction. The attacks against us by the US point to a great hope, speech powerful enough to break the fiscal blockade.”

In other words, he says the only Western speech that is ‘free’ is speech that does not threaten “the fiscal blockade”.

The commodity, in the case of Wikileaks, that is threatened is safe/private intelligence. We might call it ‘safely encrypted intelligence’.

The commodity in the case of Napster was monetized, commodified, marketed music.

Napster was savaged by the music industry because Napster represented a significant threat to the business. They were actually able to shut it down through the legal system. Wikileaks is being savaged by governments and also the media around the world. The media is savaging Wikileaks because Wikileaks is fulfilling a job typically done by the press. Governments are savaging Wikileaks because Wikileaks is publishing their secret information.

Napster threatened the ‘fiscal blockade’ between music and the consumer by making music freely downloadable. Wikileaks threatens the ‘fiscal blockade’ between THE TRUTH and the citizenry of the world by publishing national intelligence and other sometimes corporate (or simply private?) intelligence on matters of public concern.

In the case of both Napster and Wikileaks, we see the Internet wreaking significant change not on the art of music or, as it were, the art of diplomacy or intelligence, but on the business of their files.

The Value of Wikileaks

After George W Bush’s administration hoodwinked the USA and world press into thinking that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction–and used that  as an excuse to start a war with Iraq–it became impossible to say that an effective ‘watchdog press’ exists in the USA. For lack of good public information on the matter, the Bush administration was able to do what it wanted to do in any case–start a war. Starting a war based on misinformation is surely one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

The importance of an enterprise such as Wikileaks is that governments (and corporations) might have a harder time doing such stuff if an organization is set up to handle high-level whistle blowing. Might the Bush administration have had a harder time convincing the world that their intelligence on WMD was good if Wikileaks had been around at the time? Impossible to say. But it’s that sort of thing–that very high level sort of intelligence–that Wikileaks is trying to deal with.

In his mendaciously-titled book “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight”, Bush advisor Karl Rove says

“Would the Iraq War have occurred without W.M.D.? I doubt it. Congress was very unlikely to have supported the use-of-force resolution without the W.M.D. threat. The Bush administration itself would probably have sought other ways to constrain Saddam, bring about regime change, and deal with Iraq’s horrendous human rights violations.”

We note that the Iraq war *did* occur without WMD, of course. Who knows–perhaps Wikileaks could have prevented the Iraq war, or at least made the Bush administration seek some other means of justifying it than the lies about the existence of WMD that they, in fact, used.

We have heard many comments to the effect that Wikileaks puts lives at risk and makes it harder for everybody to speak the truth when they fear it might become public. We have also heard it said that it isn’t Wikileaks that does the good work but the standard press does the work with what Wikileaks provides, namely the docs.

I think we need to consider the current situation as Wikileaks 1.0. It is pretty clear at this point that such an organization has to work out not only its own internal structure but its relations with the standard press. Those relations are obviously crucial. The good work to be done is obviously not solely that which Wikileaks can do but is a combination of work by Wikileaks and the traditional press working with Wikileaks. So that innocent lives are not imperilled by Wikileaks disclosures.

Here is an outstanding four-part video investigation produced in the USA called News War that does an excellent (pre-Wikileaks) job of presenting the severe challenges faced by journalists and journalism in today’s world: http://pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/newswar . After viewing that investigation, and understanding some of the terrible difficulties faced by journalism and journalists these days, the potential value of Wikileaks and its like becomes clearer.

The picture that emerges from News War is that it’s becoming more difficult for societies to have effective watchdog presses. One of the consequences is that power is more able to do what it wants. The value of Wikileaks and its like is that they are attempts to curtail precisely this very unfortunate phenomenon of it being easier for power to do what it wants.

The internet is often blamed for certain aspects of the troubles for journalism. Lots of people these days get much of their news free on the net, thereby decreasing the monetary value of newspapers and other previously successfully monetized journalistic commodities. Well, Wikileaks is leveraging the power of the internet to empower the citizenry, journalism and journalists to present the public with what is really happening in the world. And that obviously has social, political and, consequently, financial value.

The Ayatollah Flanagan

On a separate matter concerning Wikileaks, we saw, earlier this week, the Ayatollah Tom Flanagan, a conservative professor at the University of Calgary in Canada’s prairies/midwest and a former top political aide to the Canadian conservative prime minister Stephen Harper say on Canadian national television that “Assange should be assassinated.

Which only goes to show that Canadian conservatives can be as revolting as any others.

Ayatollah Flanagan obviously thought it would be funny to call for the assassination of Julian Assange on national television. If we don’t find it funny, does that mean we don’t have what it takes to be a top political advisor to Stephen Harper? Is it a joke that only “manly” politicians or their advisors can appreciate? Would Dick Cheney find it funny?

Flanagan has gone on, of course, to regret his statement. However, something tells me he isn’t quite going to regret it enough.

Links

Is Wikileaks biased? — a video of Julian Assange talking about methods.
‘Anonymous’ group launches attacks against Swiss bank for freezing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s account – article
Shutting down Wikileaks – article

5 Responses to “Wikileaks, Napster, and the Ayatollah Flanagan”

  • Good post, Jim. Meanwhile, there is now US legislation that would redefine the words “journalist” and “publisher” as the basis for increased restrictions on the internet, in the name of national security. As if Orwell’s 1984, written as a warning, has now been adopted as a blueprint.

    Stunning, that Flanagan appears to have been allowed to issue something akin to a fatwa, with very mild consequences. The treatment of Assange throughout the mainstream media reeks of good old fashioned witch hunting. In the USA, for many centuries, what has been the best way to avoid turning a cold mirror on ourselves and our own actions in the world? Burn a witch. Above all if the witch is the one holding the mirror!

  • After Flanagan announced his fatwa, a Ms. Reymond sent him an email that said “So you are in favour of assassinating people that you disagree with. Does the Reform Party have no ethical basis? Agree with us or get assassinated?” His reply was “Better be careful, we know where you live.”

    (source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/tom-flanagan-threatened-me-over-wikileaks-comment-toronto-woman-says/article1829169/ )

    This is the sort of guy who gets his digs into you and then says it was just a joke. ‘Can’t you take a joke?’, he asks. Humour as an excuse to hurt people. A growling clown.

    In a prominent open letter to Julia Gillard, Australian Prime Minister, Flanagan didn’t even make the list of those directing violent rhetoric toward Assange.

    (source: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/41914.html )

    Yes, it’s true that Flanagan isn’t going to even be reprimanded by the University of Calgary for his remarks. But I expect more than a few people have an eye on him now. They may not know or care where he lives (nor should they, of course), but they will expect some responsibility out of people in such positions. Flanagan may not have had so much as an official reprimand, but I would think his leash is currently very short indeed.

    “The treatment of Assange throughout the mainstream media reeks of good old fashioned witch hunting. In the USA, for many centuries, what has been the best way to avoid turning a cold mirror on ourselves and our own actions in the world? Burn a witch. Above all if the witch is the one holding the mirror!”

    Interesting. Wikileaks is kind of ‘magical’, isn’t it. In the sense that it seems to be a very small organization wielding newly created powers that we don’t fully understand. Apart from just about everyone on the planet understanding it’s very nice, for a change, for the little guy to make a big difference. And nice to see the power of the Internet used to look behind the curtain rather than cover up what’s behind it.

    Here are some recent articles on Wikileaks I thought were worthwhile.

    http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/geert/2010/12/07/twelve-theses-on-wikileaks-with-patrice-riemens

    The above is a piece by Geert Lovink. It probably doesn’t say anything you haven’t already thought yourself, but it’s some useful notes you didn’t bother to write down yourself.

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2035817,00.html

    An article from Time magazine by Massimo Calabresi called ‘Why WikiLeaks Is Winning Its Info War’. This is a sentiment expressed also by Lovink in his article. But, I don’t know, appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t so clear to me that Wikileaks is winning anything but hearts and minds. Which, of course, are very important in any ‘war’, if that’s really what’s going on: an info war.

  • The Lovink essay is excellent — and is one of the few attempts to place wikileaks into a broader network culture. Thanks for the link.

    Elsewhere, I find it fascinating that John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation referred to the DDoS attacks mobilized by Anonymous as a “poison gas of cyberspace”. A poison gas deployed against the predator drones of the data miners?

    Years ago, I interviewed film maker Leandro Katz for a radio essay called Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered. He had recently finished a stunningly lucid and beautiful film, El Dia Que Me Quieras, a brooding Borjesian meditation on the famous photograph of Che on the autopsy table, following his capture, and summary execution.

    http://www.leandrokatz.com/Pages/ElDia.html

    During the interview, Leandro speculated that the hatred (and fear) of Che was not based in opposition to any specific act or revolutionary creed. Rather, he was feared because he represented the stubborn will of one individual, to cut against the course of history. One individual, with a band of barefoot rebels in a remote jungle, appearing at times to bring the entire world to a halt. The charismatic embodiment of such a possibility in the person of Che Guevara could not be tolerated by global elites, thus he was hunted down and murdered, and carved up like a hunting trophy.

    (El Dia ranks right up there, for me, with Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil as one of the great meditative documentaries, full of paradox, deep questions and the most sublime edges: highly recommended to all Arterians)

    I don’t want to push the comparison between Assange and Che too far — but I suspect the hatred unleashed towards Assange is based in the same revulsion by corporate and government elites against the notion that one person, with a small band of hackers, can reveal so much about who we really are, beneath the blather of freedom and democracy.

    More about the hunt for Che, the treatment of bodies, and the cruel compulsions of homeland security here:

    http://www.nthposition.com/americainautumn.php

  • I’ve read Barlow quoted as saying “The first serious INFOWAR is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.”

    So Leandro Katz is the commentator on Che in your very beautiful radio piece “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered”. That’s a tremendous work of art, Gregory. Particularly Katz’s contribution. I see it’s at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Whitehead.php

    “I suspect the hatred unleashed towards Assange is based in the same revulsion by corporate and government elites against the notion that one person, with a small band of hackers, can reveal so much about who we really are, beneath the blather of freedom and democracy.”

    Interesting. Most are saying that the story is all about freedom and democracy. You’re taking a different approach, or at least putting the emphasis elsewhere. An approach that focusses on a more personal, individual level. And an approach that is important in the creation of art. Of course I’d be interested in hearing more either in this thread or in an article by you.

    http://www.truth-out.org/exclusive-an-inside-look-hacktivist-attack-visacom65804
    The above URL was written by someone hanging out online with Anonymous. Watched a bit of Johnny Mnemonic tonight on TV and thought of Assange/Wikileaks.

  • For fourteen years I’ve been creating stuff for the net and experimenting with its possibilities. Wikileaks is remarkable from that perspective, really. If you take the net out of the Wikileaks equation, you’re left with something much less powerful.

    Because, with the net, Wikileaks (or anyone, for that matter) can make information available to billions of people in the time it takes to upload the file (assuming you’ve got servers set up for that sort of traffic).

    Also, once it’s available, people can easily copy it and put it up in other places on the net. It can spread uncontrollably. Once the information is public it is very hard to contain it.

    It’s totally international. This is quite different from print where to get mags or books etc from one country to another requires going through government channels.

    So if Wikileaks were implemented in print or on TV or radio, where there is more government regulation, they would be much more easy to shut down and stop.

    We see, then, that Wikileaks is using one of the unique phenomenological characteristics of the net in a very powerful way. The unique characteristic, among media, is the relative unstoppability of information spread on the net. It’s immediately available to billions of people and once it spreads, it’s very hard to contain it.

    It was from you and Marshall McLuhan, Gregory, that I first learned to appreciate the value of thinking about the unique characteristics of media.

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