Wikileaks – think of the politicians

The Wikileaks saga continues to captivate the public imagination. The drama around Assange and his arrest, the fascinating leaks, and the cyberpunk-style internet war that is raging in the background means this is the story that just keeps on giving. And it’s not just geeks that are soaking up the news – it’s everybody. This will have a huge impact on future debates on civil liberties online.

Though Wikileaks has done only what journalists have been doing for time immemorial, the backlash against them – and Julian Assange personally – has been massive. First came the outrage. The vociferous condemnations, encouragements to assassination, the hunt to find a legal pretext to lock him up, all came thick and fast as the latest round of leaks began. Our own Prime Minister was quick to label Wikileaks a criminal organisation, despite no laws being broken or charges filed.

Next came the legal and financial attacks. Web hosts were forced to sever ties with Wikileaks. Politicians in the U.S. put pressure on web hosts and payment processing companies such as Paypal, Mastercard and Visa to stop providing service to Wikileaks and throttle their ability to operate. Even a Swiss Bank cancelled Assange’s bank account because he used his Swiss lawyer’s address instead of his own.

The last phase will be legislative, as embarrassed Governments scramble to make laws that would ensure they can lock somebody up – if not now, then next time. Already, a bill has been introduced into the U.S. Congress that would allow the U.S. Government to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act. Our own government may well be pondering a similar course of action; several times we have been told that they are scouring the law books for something, anything, with which to charge Assange.

But this is not playing out in the public sphere as a strong government reaction to a terrorist threat. It’s David versus Goliath. It has not been lost on the media, or the public, that shortcuts have been taken with the rights of an Australian citizen. In the past, internet users and industry have been fighting attempts to censor the free flow of information online. But now, people who would never have given free speech or Internet freedom a second thought are becoming outraged and energised.

Both our own government and that of the U.S. have said some wonderful things on information freedom when it’s convenient, but this is now coming back to haunt them. It was only at the start of the year when the Secretary of State herself, Hillary Clinton, made a landmark speech entitled Remarks on Internet Freedom when she lauded “brave citizen journalists in Iran [who] continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country.” ¬†Just three days ago, and without any sense of irony, the U.S. Department of State announced that the USA would be hosting World Press Freedom Day in 2011, writing in a release:

New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information.

By failing to stand by such rhetoric about democracy and freedom, even when inconvenient, governments including ours have revealed themselves to be hypocrites of the first order. The media, the legal profession and the population at large have not been slow to notice.

The debate on internet censorship and online freedom has been changed forever. For once, politicians can’t rely on vague statements about security and internet nasties. It’s plain for everybody to see that giving the public this insight into how government affairs are conducted on our behalf – with all the deception, shortcuts and gossip that goes along with it – have embarrassed political leaders around the world.

We know that it is inevitable that further attacks on our rights to free expression online will come; no Australian government can resist for long. The mandatory filter is still government policy, and with even the prime minister seeming to endorse the idea of an “internet ombudsman“, the next ill-conceived attempt can’t be too far behind. But when they do try, invoking child protection, violence or even terrorism to justify it, people will think of Wikileaks and start asking tough questions. Without Wikileaks, we wouldn’t know what our leaders really think about the war in which we are embroiled, or who in our own government is providing information to a foreign embassy. We will question whether the censorship is about child protection, or government damage control. The bar will be set that much higher. For this, we should be grateful to Wikileaks.