Why are Julian Assange and Wikileaks Important?
Analytical writings which contain clear opinions
The Julian Assange affair marks an important climax between two competing philosophies. That of old-school journalism and its newer cousin ‘citizen journalism’—of which Ideas On Info is a member.
Before this dichotomy is discussed we must first understand who Julian Assange is and what exactly he has done that has lead to the current situation.
Who is Julian Assange?
Assange is an Australian citizen born on the 3rd of July 1971 in Queensland, Australia. He is quite secretive about his early life, but has been described as 'rootless' and his parent split even before he was born—Assange is the surname of his step-father. He himself became a father at the age of 18, and was forced to fight a series of custody battles.
Assange was also an early entrant into the hacking world and 'hacked' under the pseudonym of 'Mendax' (or the ‘untruthful’ in Latin). This was before the advent of Sir Tim Burners-Lee's World Wide Web, which would launch three years later in 1991. A successful computer programmer, his earliest claim to fame would have been his accusation and subsequent guilty plea for various hackings in 1995—including his hacking of Nortel's master terminal in 1991.
Released on the condition that he did not reoffend he was ordered to pay the sum of AUD2,100. He would later attend the University of Melbourne to read physics hoping that it would 'provide the intellectual stimulation and rush of hacking'.
Wikileaks was founded in 2006 and Julian has described himself as the ‘heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest’.
On their website they state that they are a ‘multi-national media organisation and associated library’. But in less jargon, one could best describe the organisation a ‘whistle-blowing website’. Wikileaks see themselves as the ideal place for whistle-blowers (such as Chelsea Manning) to securely dump data for them to review and subsequently publish. They are by no means the only publication that offers this service. The Guardian, like Wikileaks, provide a secure portal in which whistle blowers can upload their data without being identified.
Wikileaks was quick to publish some breaking sorties. In 2007 it published a US military operating manual that showed day-to-day operations in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility—which included layouts and checklists. Though the leak did not shed any meaningful light on the treatment of prisoners in ‘GTMO’, it proved to legitimise the website and saw it covered in major publications such as Wired. Four years later Wikileaks, the Guardian and the New York Times would be at the centre of new GTMO leaks. These would detail the mental state of many inmates, many of whom were suffering from ‘depressive or psychotic illnesses’, subjected to torture and attempting suicide. These files were leaked by Chelsea Manning, a US soldier.
It was on the 5th of April 2010 when Wikileaks broke its first huge story. At a press conference for the National Press Club footage of a US Apache helicopter killing two Reuters journalists was released.
Wikileaks would go on to publish more breaking stories through whistle-blowers and other sources. Notable leaks include:
The ‘Operating Thetan’ of the Church of Scientology
US use of torture in Iraq
‘how to stop leaks’ document
2016 Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) emails
What makes Wikileaks different?
Wikileaks, on the surface at least, seems to operate much like the rest of the media. Ever since we, in the west, entered the era of democracy, leaks have been a fundamental safeguard against the worst abuses of the state. Media organisations are protected in most democratic countries for the publication of stolen data. Instead it is the leaker who is legally responsible for the leaking, not the news organisation. A good recent example would be Gavin Williamson's leaking of a National Security Council decision re: Huawei and the UK's 5G network. Here it is Williamson who was reprimanded and potentially faced a criminal conviction under the Official Secrets Act 1989. The Telegraph, which ran the original story, and the journalist with whom Williamson had an 11 minute phone call, did not face any legal backlash.
Journalists are also protected in the UK by the Contempt of Court Act 1981 which states that 'no court may require a person to disclose […] the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible'.
No court may require a person to disclose, nor is any person guilty of contempt of court for refusing to disclose, the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, unless it be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.
– Contempt of Court Act 1981, Section 10, Sources of Information
This effectively means that, so long as a source is anonymous, a newspaper may publish information in the interest of the public. There are, in the UK, three main exceptions to this rule; where it is in the interest of justice, national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime. What is or isn’t in the interest of either of these three exceptions is defined in the courts, where they take all the possible outcomes of divulgence into account. The courts, for instance, would not force the Guardian to disclose the source(s) that told them that 'Paul Manafort held secret talks with Julian Assange' because public knowledge of this is essential for the correct functioning of a free and democratic society. However, a court would most definitely force the revelation of a source that had published the location of spies or detailed military plans because this threatens national security.
In the United States a publication may not be prosecuted for publishing information that has been illegally acquired so long as the publication did not participate in the collection of this information (Barnicki v. Vopper, Supreme Court of the United States, May 21st 2001).
What makes Wikileaks different to most traditional news organisation is their commitment to the publication of information in its totality. Wikileaks has on occasion published the Social Security Numbers (US equivalent of the UK's National Insurance Number), medical records, and credit card numbers of individuals. The Associated Press also found that Wikileaks even put peoples lives at risk, published content relating to rape victims in Saudi Arabia. What's more some of these rape victims were homosexual, and in a country where same-sex relationships are illegal, these revelations (according to Scott Long) 'only risked magnifying the harm caused'.
This less than strict commitment to redacting sensitive information portending to the innocent was not always Wikileaks modus operandi. In the early days Assange would work closely with journalists who helped them to properly redact the files for publication. Ensuring that only information relevant to the public was release, not the private data of individual–most of whom are not, usually, directly related to the leak. But Assange has described this process as 'time-consuming' and 'expensive'.
''We can’t sit on material like this for three years with one person to go through the whole lot, line-by-line, to redact.''
– Julian Assange, Aug 2010, at the Frontline Club in London
Even Edward Snowden, a whistle-blower, has criticised Wikileaks 'hostility to even modest curation'. Snowden, like WikiLeaks in the past, worked closely with established news organisations like the Guardian and the Washington Post to publish properly redacted files to the public. This, by most accounts, did not amount to censorship. The NSA files were explosive and exposed the USA's extensive spying programme.
Democratisation and its consequences
Wikileaks was an inevitable creation. The internet has one very powerful property; it cannot be censored. This, combined with the ease of entry, means that anyone can publish leaked documents.
In the past, if a whistle-blower wanted to leak information to the press they would have to contact the media organisations. They couldn't just set up their own newspaper or broadcast their own TV show with the information. Both would be very expensive and the latter impossible without access to government controlled TV signals. This pre-internet media was also much more accountable, they could have their right to broadcast or publish revoked by the government for publishing private data. Yes, they may publish on the underground, but this would be expensive, risky and only reach a very small audience.
The internet circumvents all of these restriction and a website, set up with relatively low costs, is almost impossible to ban. If a government so chose to ban a website, any person with a VPN or the foresight to download the Tor web-browser would still be able to access the information. Even China, with its great firewall, can't prevent its citizens from accessing VPNs–but they are trying.
This is not to say that the internet is all bad, after all Ideas On Info is a direct beneficiary of the low cost of entry. The internet produces brilliant citizen journalism. Bellingcat, an investigative website, run by college drop out Eliot Higgins, was responsible for discovering the identity of one of the Russian agents behind the Novichok attack in Salisbury.
However, change is needed. The law needs to be changed in such a way as to incentives the proper divulgence of information. Whistle-blowers are essential in keeping governments to account. This is why Assange is important. This marks the moment where western governments decide how to deal with sites that publish unredacted government secrets online without going through the regulated press.
The cards, at the moment, are in the hands of the British government who now have to choose who's extradition request(s) to honour.
Assange, after 7 years in the Ecuadorian embassy, is now in the hands of British law enforcement. He is currently serving a 50 week prison sentence for skipping bail. So far he has not been charged for any activities relating to Wikileaks. Should this change, or should he be extradited to the US (where he would be indicted), this is where a powerful precedent could be set and change the way people in the west get access to information.
But remember, Wikileaks cannot be removed. They have so far evaded the authorities by placing their servers and staff all across Europe, picking specific jurisdictions where certain elements of their activities are legally protected. To eliminate the website in absolute term would involve shutting the internet down itself. When judging the best course of action, the British government must consider this fact and try and make sure they continue to incentivise good journalistic practises for dealing with leaks.
By Leon Davies
Editor, Ideas On Info
Student studying History with Politics at the University of Buckingham.