27 December 2010

The continuing saga of EaziLeaks

• A spokesperson for the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, an organisation which claims to defend civil liberties in the digital world, has said that the hoo-ha over the recent mass disclosure of leaked confidential documents represents
the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes … This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online.
I confess to being a trifle confused by this. How is the ability to publish someone else’s data or documents a form of free speech, or something which has to be defended as a civil liberty? If someone hacked into my computer, stole copies of private letters, and published them on the internet, would the EFF applaud this as an expansion of civil liberties? One hopes not.

• I do not advocate leaking, and certainly not breaking through other people’s security. On the other hand, I cannot pretend that I would not be very interested to read about the state machinery’s goings-on behind the scenes domestically — particularly in areas such as hospital administration or child ‘protection’, where the lives and liberties of individuals are directly involved and where, one suspects, some dodgy and shocking things would emerge if one had access to all the case notes, à la post-Stasi.
I would feel more sympathetic to the EaziLeaks circus if anything had come out that was likely to result in the rolling back of the state’s powers at home, whether in the UK, US or elsewhere. As far as I am aware, nothing yet has.

• It is not clear how undermining states’ capacity to have dealings with, and against, one another has any effects on the state’s ability to manipulate its own citizens. The latter depends less on lack of public information than on the presence of an interventionist ideology which has been disseminated via state education and mass media, and which is difficult to shift without the presence of (genuinely) countercultural forces. More easily available data need make no difference at all. Everyone can know what everyone else is saying; you would still have the same ideological forces at work, except that dissenters could be more readily identified and penalised.

• There is nothing automatically ‘good’ about universal transparency. In areas such as international relations, it seems pointless: you surely need a certain degree of secrecy, otherwise you might as well not bother. On the other hand, it is hard to get worked up about the potential evils of such leaking, given how ready our diplomats and intelligence officers already are to bare all in their Facebook pages, tweets, and broadsheet-endorsed kiss-and-tell autobiographies.

• I have so far had little time for the EaziLeaks ringmaster, though the facts available about police procedures with regard to the “rape” allegations seem odd to say the least, and are liable to make one even more suspicious of the Swedish state than one already was. I still think his mission is at best irrelevant to libertarian causes, at worst damaging. Nevertheless, listening to the BBC radio interview broadcast on 21 December I found myself siding with him rather than with interviewer John Humphrys, who seemed pointlessly snide — though I daresay that is now the standard highbrow interview technique. Mr Assange rightly deflected questions about his sex life, and with more grace than they deserved. Asking “how many women have you slept with?” is something one expects from a men’s magazine, not the BBC. For another point of view, I recommend watching him being interviewed by David Frost the following day.

• Poor Wikipedia, it cannot be very good publicity for them. No wonder Cap’n Wales’s mugshot has been staring down at us from the top of every page for the last couple of months. A web-phobic friend told me he thought the two things might be part of the same outfit. For the benefit of less digitally enlightened readers: Wikipedia is part of the Wikimedia empire, which also includes such things as Wikiquote and Wikibooks. It is not affiliated with WikiLeaks in any way — as far as I know.

Genuinely countercultural ideas are needed if there is to be an alternative to pro-state ideology. Such ideas are unlikely to develop unless dissident intellectuals are supported.