Cardinal Sins: Wikignorant

Wikileaks is, frankly, a relatively dumb website. Their mission, to do away with confidentiality in all its forms, is totally impractical and entirely foolish. Moreover, the leaked cables have unveiled nothing significant unless you’re trying to protect Colonel Gaddafi’s vanity. The United States, in fact, has emerged looking like an intelligent and reasonable power struggling with idiocy in the form of Vlad, Silvio and Hamed. Unless your main goal is dismantling the reputation of these already-disreputable politicians, Wikileaks is little more than a nuisance. Though it did publish certain materials of interest a year or two ago, its most recent revelations have been widely publicized and only marginally consequential. The cables have not made the U.S. look like the evil empire that Julian Assange often alleges it to be.

Julian Assange, and his source, Bradley Manning, are not to be venerated, and much less so protected by hyperactive Internet freedom groups. For the U.S. and similar countries to operate, nobly and ignobly, some information has to be withheld. Frank military and diplomatic assessments can’t always be made public, due to the sensitivities of allies and the pragmatic necessities of a harsh world. This confidentiality can facilitate poor behavior, but nonetheless is necessary for an organization to function. Even Wikileaks itself is a closed and mysterious operation, whose financials and other documents have been leaked (the granddaddy of all ironies). Assange’s efforts haven’t been clarifying or useful in the slightest. Their central effect has been to distract government and give cause for small diplomatic spats. They’re a poor man’s investigative journalism.

Wikileaks does, if nothing else, confirm the power and justify the established position of print journalism. Wikileaks has done good work, publishing some videos and reports that pointed out human rights abuses and governmental misconduct, but the website’s absurd dedication to total transparency causes problems. Journalism is about choosing what is important. It’s about deciding what is relevant and what’s not, and knowing what needs to be said and what is meaningless clutter.

A disgruntled, querulous man, Assange has made only sparing redactions, and even then, as demonstrated by yesterday’s front page article in The Times, has endangered good people. His actions are more those of a petulant child than a progressive intellectual. Though many are instinctually compelled to side with the iconoclastic defender of freedoms, revealer of abuses, upon further reflection, it’s pretty obvious that he’s more of an emotionally damaged pariah acting out than a principled man.

Even though Assange’s effect on the political arena has been limited, he does pose one major risk to a large segment of the world’s population, and an active community at Stanford: the Web-lover. Internet groups, such as Anonymous, have been executing server attacks on various websites that have denied Wikileaks services. Some have been attacked in retaliation, but the real pushback has yet to come. The struggle to maintain Internet freedoms has been a long one, and stupidity like Anonymous’, attacking MasterCard and Visa after they stopped processing Wikileaks donations, makes it an uphill battle. These are, again, childish actions that amount to nothing but an inconvenience to the world’s major firms, rather like a child throwing broccoli at its mother. Their central effect has been to attract the ire of the world’s governments and reduce popular support, not strengthen their cause.

In this day and age, where the electorate is increasingly easy to manipulate by the press and more impulsive than ever, where governments don’t shy away from extending their reach to every realm of life, actions like Anonymous’ do incredible harm and attract the rage of the public. There’s little left in this world that’s not subject to the control of higher powers, and the Internet, with its free flow of information, data and interpersonal and international connections, is the last frontier. It is the most profoundly open market of ideas in the history of the world, yet, when it is abused and used to cause dysfunction, it loses its power and becomes a disruptive force.

If the Internet becomes more of an accessory to espionage and an instrument of infantile acts of sabotage than a means of spreading knowledge, there’s no doubt in my mind that the governments of Europe, interventionist as they are, and the rest of the Western world will take action to control the otherwise uncharted expanse of the Web. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the users of the Internet should engage in self-censorship, but I want to suggest the possibility of higher control on the Internet is only increased by trying to exercise it in a way that is both irrational and irresponsible. Wielding the incredible power and freedom of the Internet in a way that brings to mind the word juvenile will only move censorship closer to our computers.

This column was leaked by Julian Assange. Discuss at dsnelson@stanford.edu

About David Spencer Nelson