Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Mr Assange and democracy

I had not intended to comment on the wikileaks matter again, then KVD put up a comment that said:

Totally non-scientific, I accept - but I would note the present status of the SMH poll:
Poll: How do you feel about Julian Assange?
1. Benefit to democracy
2. Menace to democracy
Option 1: 91%
Total votes: 17555
As of 2.50 p.m Wednesday 8 December
Those pesky, ignorant Australian citizens.

I would have responded in a return comment, but decided to check the poll and in so doing found this piece of ageist crap, Truth, power and an age-old divide. I quote one paragraph:

The world is in the process of adjusting to the rise of technocratic young power, for which old power will inevitably have to give way, even though it is fighting tooth and nail to preserve its interests. Unfortunately his young supporters aren't in a position to protect Assange, goodwill being no defence against concentrated power.

The author Charles Purcell could argue, with a degree of justice, that he has been more balanced than I give him credit for. Nevertheless, he doesn't know his internet, nor has he thought about the true issues in this case.

I have written two posts on this matter, Mr Assange's ego and then Musings on blogging & the Assange case.

The second post was really more of a personal muse, but I did make the point (among others) that we needed to distinguish between Mr Assange and the issues surrounding the leaks themselves. Here in part I said: 

One of the difficulties Mr Assange faces, and one to a degree of his own creation, is the way the whole affair has become personalised around him. This has, to my mind, led to some very bad reporting.

In the first post, in comments and responses to comments and in postscripts on that post, I tried to draw out some of the issues as I saw them. In doing so, I tried to focus both on principles and practical outcomes. Here I said in part:

To my mind, the biggest danger created by wikileaks lies in the nature of likely Government responses. I expect these to, among other things, reduce access to information; to increase the risks and penalties for those who do speak out; and to increase the constipation in Government systems that has already reduced effectiveness.

No Government can ignore what has happened. In Australia we have a whole of Government task force addressing the implications of the leaks. The position in the US is more complicated and dangerous.

There is an illusion, one that Mr Purcell may share, that new communications technologies including the internet have in some ways created a new vehicle that Governments cannot control.

At one level that's true; new vehicles of expression have been created that have benefited the democracy movement in Iran on one side, Al Qaeda on the other. I have written about this in terms of the way it creates new vehicles for community activism such as the Bellingen hospital protests.

At a second level, it's not true. It is a sad fact but true, that Governments always believe that they are right. Further, they believe that their mission is to stay in power.

The internet may be global, but it is also true that the entire infrastructure and all the wrappings that surround it are located in individual countries. This means that countries and the Governments that control them have a degree of control. Further, at the end of the day, the operating rules under which the internet operates depend on inter-governmental agreements. If Governments agree that the internet should be controlled, the internet will be controlled.

It may be that individuals will be able to work around this. When my daughters were in Vietnam earlier this year, they were able to access Facebook  because one in the party had the technical smarts to overcome the Government imposed blocks. Yet the reality is, as I see it, that individual Government controls on the internet have been quite effective so far as the majority of the populations in question are concerned.

The internet gives and it takes away.

It gives in the sense that it provides new vehicles for expression. It takes away in that it also provides new vehicles for monitoring and control. If the East German Stasi had had the internet, its high monitoring costs would have been lower. At least some informers could have been replaced by data crunchers at a considerable saving to the state purse.

Part of my concern about the impact of the Assange affair lies in its practical impact on the internet and democracy. We can see this already. So far as leaks are concerned, I would love to have access to the diplomatic messages now flying around the world. It is clear that the whole paraphernalia of power is being brought to bear.

People are, rightly, concerned about Mr Assange as a person in the maelstrom. Yet, as I see it, the real outcome is going to be new sets of controls. Governments simply have to respond and they will do so. It's not just the internet, but all sorts of changes and restrictions on the way Government operates.

Ninety one percent of the Herald poll may believe that Mr Assange is a benefit to democracy. I think that he is a potential disaster.     


Brigid said...

Good point. We need to wait to see the outcome of this practical application of the Hegelian dialectic: thesis - antithesis - synthesis.

Clearly, there will be a reaction - but as we have seen from US comments there has been gross over-reaction which, in my view, will be unsustainable internationally.

If actions to tighten up the 'net follow suit, any overreaction could bounce back to hit reactionaries in the face. And it is not only good old Hegel we can look to. The even older Tao teaches us about waxing and waning.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

You have a very good habit, often used, of “unpacking issues” - trying to get some clear air around those parts of any discussion which interest you. You are quite good at that, and it has helped me in the past with my own thinking – thank you.

You are concerned about the ramifications for effective government, and how these leaks may impact upon an already security conscious government apparatus, and how the internet itself will henceforth be “controlled”.

I am more interested in the government’s (my government) reaction to this unwanted attention than I am in the mostly colourless facts being drip fed by the chosen news organisations. I am also more interested in the strident misdirection being applied as to just where, in the chain, the basic weakness lay which enabled such a gross breach to occur.

But I am even more interested in the now quite blatant misuse of that same machinery to “kill” the messenger and his organisation. You ponder internet controls while we read about closure of Swiss bank accounts, and PayPal and various credit cards being cancelled, and a citizen’s own government contemplating withdrawal of passport? Internet “control”? Telephones were tapped from about 1900.

As you might say, my concerns are separate issues, and I can certainly accept that we may weight them differently – or at least, it would appear that we do.


Jim Belshaw said...

I hope that you are right, Miss E!

David, that was my key point in this post.

Yes, I am interested in the effectivenss of Government. I write about it a lot and that was involved in my original response. But if we just focus on this post, my arguement is that the responses to the Assange matter will ensure less transparent, more contolling Government.

There is a real fight on at the moment from China to Iran to Australia and beyond about freedoms in the new environment. In one blow the sheer excess, the industrial scale of the leaks, ensures to my mind that we will be worse off at the end than we were at the beginning.

Let me take an example. I bet you that we will now see changes in law and enforcement of law that ensures that the person of individual conscience who wants to protest an injustice is hit more heavily.

We will also see greater overall controls on freedom of information.

I don't trust Government, I never have. This is not a matter of evil intent, simply of the way things work and the belief in Government that Government is right and that its will must be enforced.

I have seen this myself, even enforced it until I realised that what I was doing was wrong. Perhaps I should take the actual case to explain my point.