The arrest of Julian Assange on April 11, following his forcible expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and the immediate extradition request by the US government, highlights one of the main contradictions of the present structure of our digitalized societies.
Democratic governments are obliged to protect human rights – in particular, the privacy of their citizens and their freedom of speech. They need to be transparent and accountable with regards to their own actions in the service of the public that elected them.
Yet, in practice, we see governments in collusion with powerful corporations, spying on their citizens and users while willfully hiding much of their own conduct from the public. Instead, they create fake news to justify this conduct, persecuting those who dare to lift the veil of secrecy.
As demonstrated by Assange’s WikiLeaks, the clandestine nature of the bulk of ‘official’ information that was protected as ‘state security’, actually concerns matters that are hard to justify to the public, or those that are frankly illegal. Obvious examples, revealed by WikiLeaks, include details of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, evidence of security forces overstepping their spying prerogatives, the content of secret negotiations of trade agreements, and finally proof of corruption.
The WikiLeaks and Assange episodes have revealed that, by putting information in the hands of citizens, data also works in favor of greater transparency and democratic governance.
The Corporate Model of the Internet
Meanwhile, the massive violations of private data and digital security loopholes on the part of major internet platforms have come to light in recent months. These are clearly not simply cases of accidents or negligence. Rather, they are part of the essence of the corporate model of the internet, or “surveillance capitalism”, as it has been termed.
In exchange for “free” internet services, as users we are practically obliged — with or without our consent — to hand over far more data than most of us even realize we are generating. This data is not only monetized by big tech corporations, but also contributes to increasing their power because of network effects.
In exchange for “free” Internet services, as users we are practically obliged — with or without our consent — to hand over far more data than most of us even realize we are generating.
The more data they absorb, the more effective are the algorithms that generate digital intelligence, giving them a competitive edge. Their clients, including advertisers, security agencies, public and private services, political groups, among others, also gain strategic advantages. As we have seen in the case of the recent Brazilian elections, this can seriously distort democratic process.
Legislators are belatedly struggling to find ways to control these corporate behemoths, restrict or penalize the abuse of private data, control the spread of “fake news” or apply antitrust laws to break up their monopoly power .
There is no doubt that this is necessary, but it runs the risk of being too little, too late. And if adequate legislation is complex to formulate in the major developed countries, it is much harder for countries of the Global South that have almost no power over how the internet works.
And if adequate legislation is complex to formulate in the major developed countries, it is much harder for countries of the global South that have almost no power over how the internet works.
Instead, there is a tendency to focus solely on regulation concerning hate speech, fake news, or information leaks. This often results in new forms of censorship affecting freedom of expression. Moreover, in many instances, digital platforms have been asked to ‘self-regulate’ and develop their own censorship policies, something they are simply not qualified to do.
It is one thing to remove hate speech, in-citation to violence or racism from public media platforms. In most countries, this is already covered under existing laws. But when Google unilaterally downgrades web pages from its search engine algorithms, treating them as “fake news” because they are associated with protest against war or state criticism (as has happened with a number of alternative websites in the US)- that’s an attack on free speech.
Again, this is not simply an unplanned consequence of over-zealous regulatory efforts. The right wing think tank, Atlantic Council, which works closely with defence and security services of the major powers, criticized the internet, as it “democratized the ability for sub-state groups and individuals to broadcast a narrative with limited resources and virtually unlimited scope”, thus quickly spreading political dissent and creating “conflict and disruption”. Censorship and the suppression of dissent is viewed as a necessity, requiring the collaboration of internet corporations.
In this context, in stark contrast to the corporate model of digital platforms, initiatives to build a people’s internet are an expression of one of the major social disputes of this century. These efforts involve retrieving control over data, creating secure platforms with open software, defending rights including privacy and freedom of expression, developing artificial intelligence under community control, promoting antitrust legislation, among many other aspects.
Defending the WikiLeaks movement and Julian Assange against persecution is a vital part of this endeavor, as freedom of expression and the very struggle for democracy is threatened. Assange’s extradition to the US implies that the American justice system could demand any journalist in the world to appear before them: a legal aberration.
The only “crime” for which Assange was initially indicted is trying to hack a password in order to protect his source (Chelsea Manning). But protecting a source is a basic journalistic right, for which he should not be liable to extradition. More recently, 17 new charges, including espionage, have been brought against him. This could mean a prison sentence of up to 175 years for Assange, essentially for exercising the right to free speech.
Assange, then, is a symbol of the fight for the peoples’ right to information, freedom of expression and the democratization of technology.