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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

  1. January 17th, 2011 at 01:04 | #1

    Well said, Allen. Americans, and many other Western societies, need to learn to give others the freedom to decide what they need and when & how they wish to progress.

  2. scl
    January 17th, 2011 at 07:47 | #2

    I think one of the most important facts about the Wikileaks event is the way it reveals the manipulative nature of Western media reporting. By comparing with the original documents, the “art” of selective reporting is exposed for all to see.

  3. January 17th, 2011 at 12:30 | #3

    Indeed, very well said, Allen. I always learn something new from your posts.

    Americans may worship and preach freedom, but are they ready to exercise it?

    If we replace “freedom” with “god”, and when we look at human history, the answer has been bleak.

    When we look at the overall trend, perhaps we are trending positive overall.

  4. pug_ster
    January 17th, 2011 at 14:05 | #4

    Talking about Western Media. I thought this article is kind of ominous.


    I could not imagine how many monkeys out there who “pore over the news to synthesize it, summarize it and spin it.”

  5. r v
    January 17th, 2011 at 17:00 | #5

    There is a point when “democratic ideals” become so commoditized, that manipulation of the “market of ideas” becomes inevitable as the manipulation of the economic “free market”.

    What we are witnessing, is a bubble of “democratic ideals”, over extended, over commoditized, over leverage, to be hyped and marketed for more than they are worth.

    And when the bubble bursts, and it will, it will be those who bought too much into that market that will be left holding the question of “what went wrong”, yet again.

    So many in Africa and Latin America are already discovering that.

  6. Charles Liu
    January 18th, 2011 at 11:56 | #6

    What the Wikileak case demonstrated is the fact free speech has limit, especially political speech as it has sovereignty implication. What it also demonstrated is the duplicity in applying such univeral rights when it comes to China.

    Beyond the treatment Wikileak founder received, look at the suspected leaker Bradly Manning. He’s taken away at night, and nobody knows where he is (does that sound familiar?) Where’s our media’s “dissident” cry like “he did the right thing [against messed up US foreign policy]”, or “[US] government is afraid of his words”, etc. (again should sound very familiar).

    When it comes to China, generally accepted right to sovereign independence doesn’t seem to apply. We hold up the same criminal that violated national security laws (leaking classified information, receiving foreign funding for domestic politics) as dissidents purer than falling snow.

    So where’s Bradly Manning’s Nobel Peace Prize?

  7. Wukailong
    January 18th, 2011 at 18:53 | #7

    This page gets stopped in China for some reason. You might consider being a bit more careful with what words you are using if you don’t want the blog to end up harmonized.

  8. January 18th, 2011 at 20:04 | #8

    Thx for the heads up. I’ve just tested and both this page and the whole site were fine. Our log also shows visitors from China.

    What error did you get?

  9. Wukailong
    January 18th, 2011 at 21:45 | #9

    A connection reset, and then the same thing for the whole blog for half a minute or so. Actually, it might have been prompted not by this post by the “Fighting for jobs in a global world.” Maybe it’s just temporary.

  10. Charles Liu
    January 26th, 2011 at 14:38 | #10

    Just FYI on couple development on the wikileak thing:

    – No link between Assagne and Manning, but the poor guy is still jailed in solitary confinement, the very same condition the human rights folks harp about.

    – When friends tried to visit and submit a permission to the Manning’s commander, they were detained. Should also sound familiar.

    I smelll a Nobel.

  11. r v
    January 26th, 2011 at 16:24 | #11

    No, not likely a Nobel at all. That prize is a joke with a really idiotic punchline.

    Though, I would suggest that China shouldn’t imitate a Nobel prize, but rather make a satirical version.

    I think we should do it ourselves.

    I would love to hear some feedbacks, but I was thinking something like an “Animal Farm Prizes” (for Orwell’s book), in categories such as “More Equal Than Others”, for Leaders of “Democracies”, or other categories named after characters in the Orwell book.

    Particularly, targeting Nobel Peace Prize nominees/winners for the Animal Farm Prizes.

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