Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Of Whistle-Blowers and Figureheads

This week the face of Mark Zuckerberg is beginning to grace newsstands on the TIME cover for the 2010 Person of the Year. Yet many have questioned the choice of someone with relatively little policy influence, even if the supporting article describes Zuckerberg being visited by FBI chief Mueller in his Silicon Valley offices.

In particular, supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julia Assange are deluging the news magazine's website with complaints that their hero (or anti-hero), the infamous high-profile Australian-born whistle-blower known for leaking diplomatic cables from the U.S. government, is being snubbed by the mainstream press.

To TIME's credit, they did grant Assange the honor of being a chief "runner-up" to Zuckerberg's coverboy status. However, in the article that acknowledges Assange's influence, the introductory rhetoric is striking.

On Dec. 9, 2006, an unsolicited e-mail arrived for Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower of Vietnam War renown. The return address said only "WikiLeaks," and the signature at bottom, "WL." In the orotund prose of a manifesto, the message invited Ellsberg to become the public face of a project "to place a new star in the firmament of man." Ellsberg knew nothing of the group, which had yet to make its debut. Nor had he heard of its leader, a then 35-year-old Australian named Julian Assange, best known in his own circles as a teenage hacker turned "cypherpunk" — a prolific coder with visions of technology as a tool for political change.

The audacity of the e-mail kept Ellsberg reading. WikiLeaks aimed at nothing less than the decline and fall of oppression by organized exposure of its secrets. "Governance by conspiracy and fear," the author wrote, depended on concealment. "We have come to the conclusion that fomenting a world wide movement of mass leaking is the most cost effective political intervention." So fanciful did the proposal appear that Ellsberg saw only two ways to read it, he told TIME: as either "a little ploy by the CIA or NSA to draw in leaks" or "a very naive venture to think that they can really get away with it." Ellsberg made no reply.

The reader of TIME meets Assange as a stealthy and anonymous e-mail writer meriting some screen attention but no reply. In contrast, Zuckerberg is introduced as a corporate CEO leading a large meeting. In the Zuckerberg article we are told that his success and that of his company Facebook represents the fact that both the Sixties and the anonymous and subversive hacker ethic that supposedly grew out of that decade are over and that Internet culture has moved on to embrace bourgeois values and corporate consumerism. In contrast, the Assange piece begins with a quintessential Vietnam-era whistle-blower and his introduction to his cyberpunk hacker successor.

Not the least of Assange's achievements is a technological one. WikiLeaks brought to life what one of its early advisers described as "a recurring idea in hacker culture — a digital safe haven that is anonymous, massively collaborative and highly resistant to attack or penetration by intelligence services." Redundant hardware and Web servers span international borders. Participants in its design say WikiLeaks has made novel use of an alphabet soup of existing geek tools, such as mutually anonymous file sharing, decoy ciphering to flood eavesdroppers with empty data, and encryption of files in transit and in storage.

Although Assange and WikiLeaks are all over the newspapers, not a lot has been printed about WikiLeaks in the academic literature yet, since publishing cycles at university presses often lag far behind current events. I wrote about WikiLeaks in the chapter on whistle-blowers in the Virtualpolitik book, and for a long time since then I have argued that the dialectic between the disembodied evidence of a site like WikiLeaks and the embodied testimony of the eyewitness, epitomized by Witness, both function in Internet discourses about human rights, global justice, and civil society in the transnational domains of cyberspace.

Other websites obscure the ethos of the whistle-blower to protect the anonymity of sources that provide whistle-blowing documents and emphasize collective intelligence over individual credibility. However, the multiple authorship structure that such sites often deploy poses risks in representing a number of personal agendas and rhetorical motivations simultaneously. Furthermore, online disclosure of some kinds of whistleblowing documents—such as the contents of secret police files from the Stasi in the former East Germany—is not considered to be feasible because of significant privacy concerns about disclosure; victims or unrelated parties could have highly confidential personal information revealed on the Internet.

For example, the website Wikileaks was temporarily closed down by a judge’s order after it published records that seemed to indicate that a bank in the Cayman Islands was involved in possible tax evasion and money laundering. A representative from the bank complained to the news media of possible “harm from the widespread dissemination of private and confidential banking information, including account numbers, personal identification numbers, account transactions and history, and account balances,” which could cause “identity theft and electronic theft of account balances” after a “disgruntled employee” posted the documents.35 However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was ultimately successful in a legal challenge to the judge’s shutdown of the entire site via the internet service provider that was hosting the Wikileaks.org domain, which an editorial in the New York Times compared to “shutting down a newspaper because of objections to one article.”36 Other documents on the multilingual and multinational Wikileaks site include official information about U.S. federal guidelines for the treatment of detainees in terrorism cases, materials about corruption in Kenya and Bermuda, and the numbering systems used for NATO equipment. 37 The site interface used the familiar tabs of “article,” “discussion,” and “history” from Wikipedia, along with a tab for “view source.”

Soon after Wikileaks was launched in December 2006, it inspired a watchdog group
that often wrote critically about the site and the hundreds of thousands of documents
that it published online. WikiLeak.org characterized itself as a “discussion blog about
the ethical and technical issues” of the Wikileaks project. This site apparently maintained a certain amount of critical distance from its object of study, because it described itself as “not yet affiliated with the secretive and media manipulative” wiki for “mass document leaking.”38 However, during the legal troubles that Wikileaks faced and its highly publicized forced blackout in the United States, the once-critical WikiLeak.org blog listed the domain names of mirror sites for the whistle-blowing original to help visitors find documents, relevant articles, and position papers that the Wikileaks.org had site made available.

Since writing these paragraphs for a book that appeared in May 2009, obviously a lot has changed in the public profile of WikiLeaks. A visit to the site shows Assange's face on the banner, while before its masthead emphasized the site's lack of a figurehead. Then again, we now see Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wale's visage pleading for support on almost entry we open. Compare Wale's upturned face and hopeful expression to Assange's conspiratorial gaze.

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