[Note: not Julian Assange]
Yesterday, I was asked by an emissary of a well-known rock band if my organization had any opinion about the recent developments regarding Wikileaks. We don’t.
I, on the other hand, have an opinion about nearly everything.
For those too busy making their list and checking it twice, I’m talking about the fallout from the Wikileaks release of international diplomatic cables. There’s nothing too shocking in the leaks, unless maybe you thought Silvio Berlusconi was a competent straight-shooter. OK, there was some news, namely that China is ready to kick North Korea to the curb. But most of the cables simply reiterated, in slightly less decorous terms, what observers of US foreign policy already know.
That doesn’t mean American power is taking this lightly. Wikileaks founder Julian “you can’t spell Assange without ASS” Assange, has been all but branded an Enemy of the State by US policymakers and pundits. (I guess he’ll have to settle for being called an “enemy combatant” by Newt “I’m still pissed my mommy named me Newt” Gingrich.)
As I told our rock friend, my personal feeling tracks with how Stephen Colbert put it last night: “Journalists don’t uncover information abut what governments do behind closed doors — they report it, and then that person is labeled a terrorist.”
To me, Wikileaks is an interesting and provocative new facet of our networked culture. It is also potentially disruptive and certainly not something that the government can or should get behind. The public benefits from these leaks to varying degrees, but US leadership doesn’t enjoy being made to look ridiculous. They can do that just fine on their own, thank you very much.
That said, the pressure on Wikileaks’ funding apparatus and the smearing of Assange seems heavy-handed, though not altogether unexpected. I have no idea what to make of the “molestation” charges against him, but it’s easy enough to picture a coordinated campaign to sully his rep as a digital freedom fighter. I mean, CIA tried to make Castro‘s beard fall out so that he’d look weak to his constituents (among other things). But there is always the possibility that Assange is a total creep. What any of this has to do with the legality and/or morality of his electronic empire, however, is exactly nothing.
Why should intellectual property mavens care? Because this Wikileaks business serves to escalate the copywars, in which those who favor stricter online protection regimes see in Assange all of the anarchism of the internet distilled in a villain straight out of the first Die Hard movie. Those who believe in the unfettered and transparent flow of digital information view him as a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, liberating sensitive content for the betterment of humanity.
I have no actual stance here, but instead see Wikileaks as emblematic of a broader paradigm shift that will test many long-held doctrines and assumptions.
In the short term, we will see groups like EFF lead the charge in defending Wikileaks’ right to exist. Emboldened by attempts to block or financially starve Assange’s digital assets, hacker fanbois (and gurls) will target symbols of corporate and political convention such as Mastercard and Sarah Palin. I find this behavior childish and counterproductive, as it ultimately reinforces the view that anyone who has issue with aggressive intellectual property protections is a traitor. This in turn drives what may end up being the biggest waste of time and money since the Drug War, as government responds with tighter controls over the flow of information online, only to be counter-thwarted by a pissed-off technoscenti.
My concern is that this gets us no closer to making the legitimate digital marketplace work better for creators, many of whom depend on open internet structures to reach fans directly and advance their careers on their own terms. You can bet your lobbying dollars that groups representing the interests of the content industries, such as the MPAA and RIAA, are eager to conflate the dangers of a Wikileaks world with the horrors of global copyright infringement. Let me make it clear: I hate piracy. The idea of someone stealing something that I slaved over pisses me off. But for many artists, obscurity is more threatening than piracy. That’s why they need a basic guarantee that their content and information is going to receive the same treatment as it passes through “the tubes” as stuff owned by Disney.
The problem with the Wikileaks situation is that could be a license to overreact, which would have a negative impact on the freedoms that we’ve come to enjoy in both the legitimate digital marketplace and informational commons. There’s every reason for government to approach the problem of intellectual property theft with all due seriousness. But I’d caution that whatever methods used be appropriate in scope and application.
Or else the terrorists have truly won.