Reflecting on the Wikileaks Incident: What It Teaches About “Freedom”
Before this year really gets going (yes I know I have been out of commission from blogging for a while, a state which may continue for just a while longer), I thought I’d post my own little post reflecting on the Wikileaks incidient – which I think illustrate important issues relating to “freedom.”
The controversy over Wikileaks has evoked strong emotions on all sides here in the U.S. On the one hand, you have those like the U.S. government preaching responsibility, claiming that publication would harm the lives and U.S. interests around the world – that being responsible is necessary to preserving our liberty. On the other hand, you have those like Assange clamoring free speech, raising the specter of a government that can never be trusted.
In the midst of these debates, many have understandably come to see freedom as a balance between competing needs. This is however a mistake.
Balance is the domain of politics, not freedom.
We too often wrap political agendas in the rhetoric of freedom. On Wikileaks, some attack the leaks in defense of a nation – of liberty itself. Opponents raise the same flag of freedom to defend full disclosure.
Such careless use of “freedom” is unfortunate. By wrapping politics in the rhetorics of “freedom,” important issues become obsfuscated. In the foreign arena, U.S. has for ages pursued an diplomatic agenda based on such double speak.
If we must talk about freedom, let’s talk about freedom in terms of the democratic process – not policy, or politics.
The core of freedom in a democracy is not negotiable: it is about fostering awareness, about creating a sanctuary for citizenship discourse, about preserving a forum where some “junk politics,” untruthfulness, misleading ideas, fraudulent and false airing of incendiary “facts,” even false – perhaps dangerous – ideologies have to be tolerated. It is about creating an unregulated space of ideas where citizen-based vigilance and participation can be relied upon to ferret out truth (dumbed down, misleading politics, of the types we’ve seen in most election cycles, don’t count).
Given the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ever-growing anti-American attitude developing around the world, I am the last to argue that it is high time for Americans to be more aware – of the world, of their role in the world … and also of the fundamental fragile state of freedom that they so much want to export to the rest of the world.
On the global stage, American exceptionalism has become a farce. In the name of freedom and democracy, America has attacked soveriegn nations, destroyed communities, assassinated foreign leaders, funded insurgencies.
On the domestic front: despite the great pride Americans feel about living in a “free” soceity, within days of the White House pronouncing the Wikileaks publication illegal, several payment sites – including PayPal, Mastercard and Visa – suspended WikiLeaks’s accounts, cutting off Wikileaks primary means of accepting donations. Amazon’s web hosting service dropped its hosting of Wikileaks mirror sites. EveryDNS.net took the drastic step of taking suspending the wikileaks.org domain.
If a shadow network of Internet stakeholders has the power to control flow of information according to its own rules and sense of norms – when the government is still unclear on whether the information should be censored – what is to prevent companies from forming rings outside of government oversight to hemorrhage flow of information for illicit purposes?
How delusional are Americans about the state of the world today? Is it really much better to rely on companies and individuals to manage the flow of information than the government?
This is not a trumped-up concern. When even Google – the self-proclaimed defender of transparency, openness, and objectivity on the Internet – is under investigation in the EU for manipulating search result for commercial gain and has in the court of law been observed to “vehemently assert and defend its right to manually and subjectively promote, penalise, or omit whatever it chooses,” no part of the Internet is immune.
The aftermath of Wikileaks has revealed not only the fragility of the idea of a “free” Internet, but also the fragility of freedom itself.
Instead of releasing all the leaked documents directly to the public at large, Wikileaks has chosen to release the full set of documents only to a small, select group of news outlets *(which, according to this Assange interview, have not upheld their end of the bargain with Wikileaks by releasing few documents and redacting most documents released to the general public). According to Wikileaks founder Assange, Wikileaks has chosen to work this way because it takes the right set of economic incentives – “professional journalists” who are “funded after a career structure” – to ferret out “the truth.” The “broader community,” according to Assange, is generally too politically or ideologically entrenched to seek the truth, and hence too narrow-minded to scrutiny these voluminous documents in an open-minded and meaningful way.
This is a sobering observation.
Essayist John Ralston Saul has described of an “unconscious civilization” where a people, despite political freedoms, is neither free nor empowered.
The truth is that freedom per se does not beget a free people. That’s because freedom itself does not empower. For empowerment to take place, people must be proactive – and many other stars have to align: the media has to be fair and objective to generate good public debates; the people have to be educated enough, well fed enough, and to care enough about the political process to participate in meaningful speech; the public needs to also have a healthy sense of social awareness and public duty to exercise speech toward the good of society – not just for themselves.
Many have bashed China for lacking “freedom” when disagreeing with China over policy and politics. But the truth is that China today is pursuing developments that empower people on a scale never before seen in history. In so many ways, it deserves commendations, not demonization.
Americans may worship and preach freedom, but are they ready to exercise it?
*Highlighted text added on May 7, 2011 in light of Assange interview