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Wikileaks Takes on the World (Governments)

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 31 2010

Credit: Photo of Julian Assange by Esther Dyson

Salon's Glenn Greenwald has a really interesting post connecting together his work over the years exposing what the U.S. government has been up to in terms of surveillance and the like, and Wikileaks, the online repository of sensitive government documents and other data from around the world. Greenwald points to Wikileaks recent distribution of a CIA report on how the U.S. might influence public opinion in Europe to prolong the military's stay in Afghanistan. That sort of behavior isn't, not surprisingly, endearing the website to government authorities. Greenwald interviewed Wikileaks figure Julian Assange, and highlights a U.S. Army report that discusses how one might go about knocking out Wikileaks a "center of gravity" in the universe of information flow.

When it comes to the question of how the Internet is shaping politics, Wikileaks is deserving of much more attention than any of us, really, have given it. That's because the global website, existing out in the ether, completely overturns a critical political dynamic.

We're all well aware that the fracturing of the media space in, say, the United States, is something that politicians are rushing to cope with, from the White House to the state house. Sure, less and less, they can pick up the phone and arm-twist a newspaper editor into not running a story, that's true. But there are still leverage points. For one thing, plenty of political bloggers in the U.S., now, are affiliated with organizations (like, say, Greenwald's Salon) that are sensitive about their relationship with the government. But Wikileaks, a unique creature of the web, is sort of a supra-national beast. The driven team behind the site doesn't seem to care much about angering national governments. Or, at least, they're willing to do it and take the abuse.

Most frightening, perhaps, for governments is what we saw in the recent Trafigura dumping case in Côte d'Ivoire where Wikileaks' publishing of the details of a British gag order seemed push the Guardian, the newspaper targeted by the restrictions, to be more aggressive in resisting the order. Local media paired with a global ally that isn't cowed by government? That's a brand-new new dynamic that governments are inclined to lash out at. As Greenwald describes, they are. Greenwald doesn't mention it, but in Australia (Assange's home country), the government has put Wikileaks on its web blacklist. That came to light about two weeks ago only when the government's censorship hitlist was revealed on...three guesses...Wikileaks.

Of course, what was said above about a site like Wikileaks existing "in the ether" of the web is a fiction. Servers are based somewhere, and local laws do take their bite. The protection of the web is not absolute, as the Wikileaks team knows. Greenwald points out that they are involved in the push to possibly make Iceland a sort of journalistic haven. There's a bill in the Icelandic parliament to do just that. Fascinatingly, in Greenwald's telling, Iceland, as a country, is newly appreciative of the value of shining light on sensitive information after its economy collapsed behind a veil of secrecy impenetrable to journalists and regulators alike. The true value of something like Wikileaks gets reassessed after a financial calamity like that.

"There aren't many groups more besieged, or doing more important work, than they," writes Greenwald. We've written in the past about how, in this case, money is an issue. Earlier this year, Wikileaks went on "strike" until they could fundraise for their operating costs, though they've been trickling out documents while in suspended animation.

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