Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz is dead. He committed suicide yesterday, and the world has lost someone it shouldn’t have lost.

I didn’t know Aaron that well. We’ve spent some time together, and we work for the same company. I was hoping to one day actually be able to work on a project with him.

Aaron was a one of the people fighting on the forefront for Internet freedom and openness. His successes with PACER and SOPA, his work with JSTOR, DemandProgress and VictoryKit are all inspirations.

And here is the problem. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee: “we have lost a mentor, a wise elder”. There are too few like him. This is the time to step up and be part of the fight. The world is under constant attack. There are forces in the US that are a threat to every person on this planet. And the only way to stop it is for us to be more engaged.

I know I haven’t. But I will.

WikiLeaks Panel – Why it matters

Yesterday The Churchill Club and ThoughtWorks together put on a panel about WikiLeaks, in Santa Clara. It featured Clay Shirky, Daniel Ellsberg, Jonathan Zittrain, Peter Thiel, and Roy Singham, with Paul Jay from the Real News as moderator. I’m personally extremely happy with how it turned out. I’ve been involved in working on this panel for a while now, and it eclipsed all my expectations.

Everyone on the panel made important contributions, and I think everyone in the audience left having learnt many new things. I’m not going to recap the actual panel here. Instead, you can read a report of it here. You can also see the panel at Fora.tv here. If you are in the least interested in these issues, I strongly urge you to see the whole panel. To me, it reiterated how important these events really are, and that we need to fight for our freedom.

US government behind Swedish Internet laws?

Just after Christmas, the leader of the Swedish Pirate Party, Rickard Falkvinge, published some information this is deeply disturbing if it’s true. It’s not so much that the information inside is new, but that I’ve gotten more confirmation of things I thought were possible, but wasn’t entirely sure of.

To set the context about these things, it’s necessary to know that the last five years in Sweden has seen a marked rise from the government pushing for legislations related to Internet freedom, privacy and wiretapping. Sweden has traditionally had very good policies for these things, but that has been eroded the last years with things like IPRED, FRA, the persecution of The Pirate Bay, the proposed measures in the so called Renfors inquiry (Renforsutredningen) and many other things.

The information Falkvinge posted gives proof that all these measures have been a focused push by the US government, and that the Swedish government have easily been manipulated or told to follow the US governments suggestion. This information comes from a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable called Stockholm 09-141, which details how Sweden should not be put on the Special 301 list by the US Government, because the Swedish government has been pliant enough and made enough progress on the measures mentioned above.

If you read Swedish, you can read Falkvinke’s post here. If you want to see the text of the cable itself, you can see it in English here. As a Swede, I’m very unhappy to see these things confirmed. Once again, WikiLeaks have shown us something we didn’t know before.

Panel on Internet Freedom

Next week, ThoughtWorks and The Churchill Club is organizing a live panel about Internet freedom and the implications of the recent WikiLeaks events. This is going to be a world class event with very engaging speakers, and it will also be streamed live if you can’t attend in person. Daniel Ellsberg, Peter Thiel, Clay Shirky, Jonathan Zittrain and Roy Singham will discuss various important subjects touching on the WikiLeaks controversy:

WikiLeaks: Why it Matters. Why it Doesn’t?
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
5:30-8:30 PM Pacific Standard Time

The purpose of this discussion is to take an objective look at the WikiLeaks controversy and its potential threats to the future of the free Internet. Notwithstanding the varied personal opinions of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, this issue reaches beyond the actions of one person or one website. Precedents that will determine the very future of the Internet are being set as the world grapples with new social and information models. This is a serious issue worthy of serious discussion and debate.

Paul Jay, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network will moderate the panel, which includes:

  • Daniel Ellsberg, Former State and Defense Dept. Officialy prosecuted for releasing the Pentagon Papers
  • Clay Shirky, Independent Internet Professional; Adjunct Professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University
  • Neville Roy Singham, Founder and Chairman, ThoughtWorks
  • Peter Thiel, President, Clarium Capital; Managing Partner, Founder’s Fund
  • Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University; Co-founder, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Please join us along with other executives from diverse industries and positions, all of whom will gather to listen and engage with these panelists who represent a rich cross section of the communities impacted by the WikiLeaks issue.

Attend in person!

Santa Clara Marriott: 2700 Mission College Boulevard · Santa Clara, California 95054 USA

A buffet dinner will be served.

To register to attend this event please visit the Churchill Club’s Website at : http://www.churchillclub.org/eventDetail.jsp?EVT_ID=892. There is a small charge for this event, however guests of ThoughtWorks may use a special discount, gtworks25, to receive the Churchill Club’s member rate.

View live-streamed event

The Real News Network: http://bit.ly/fdjoMr

Fora.tv: http://bit.ly/f4cuz6

Twitter has backbone

It has just been revealed that a subpoena was delivered to Twitter in mid December. This subpoena asked for the content of several Twitter accounts, including private messages, means of finance etc. And it was sealed – which means Twitter was denied the right to inform anyone that it has received this subpoena. The only reason that we now know about this is that Twitter decided to go to court and get the seal released. And as a result of that, we know that the US government is going after Julian Assange and Bradley Mannings, but also a member of the Icelandic parliament, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, and several others. Depending on how you read the subpoena, it can also mean that the US government is asking for information about anyone following these accounts.

This is the first real information we have got that the department of justice is actively leading an investigation into Wikileaks. It is worrying that Twitter had to take legal action to even mention that this subpoena exists. Everyone is asking whether Facebook, Google, Amazon and others have gotten similar requests but haven’t fought to make it public.

All I can say is that this shows Twitter doing the right thing. They followed the law but also did what they could to make right by the people who use its service. I wish more companies would follow that lead.

The Justifications of Cowards

One of the major problems with the actions surrounding WikiLeaks was that there seemed to be a marked lack of process. In some cases WikiLeaks got 24 hour notice, but they had no way of appealing or presenting their view of the case. But from the information we have seen so far, the justifications used by companies have been very thin or just outright false. Just to get everything collected in one place, I wanted to write about all the companies that removed support for WikiLeaks, and analyze their stated reasons for doing so.


Just after WikiLeaks started releasing their “cablegate” data, they decided to move their site to Amazon Web Services. The reason for this was that they had been subjected to minor DDOS attack and wanted to make sure that the site remained possible to reach. Amazon was mainly serving as the host for the website – not for the actual data (although the data is there too). The data was also available through numerous other means, such as BitTorrent.

Lieberman has confirmed that his office made a phone call to Amazon to see whether they would take down the site. Lieberman had his office do this, since he feels that WikiLeaks is distributing “illegally seized material”.

Amazon was quiet for over twenty four hours, but then issued a message explaining why they had removed the WikiLeaks site. It has several interesting nuggets. The first sentence of the message says that Amazon did not stop serving WikiLeaks because of the government inquiry. We may never know the truth here, but it’s clear that a call was made from Liebermans office, very close in time to when the service was taken down. It’s also clear that WikiLeaks has hosted content on AWS several times before (and it has gotten lots of attention those times too) – without Amazon taking this content down.

The justification Amazon is using for taking down WikiLeaks is that WikiLeaks wasn’t following their terms of service. As examples of things that go counter to the ToS, Amazon notes that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or control the rights for all their content. Of course, according to the Copyright act, copyright protection is not available for any work of the United States government, so the cables can definitely be said to be in the public domain. Even if you don’t care about that argument, there is also an argument for consistency of enforcement. Have Amazon taken down the New York Times for reporting the same material?

The other justification used is that it’s not “credible” that WikiLeaks could have carefully redacted all information that could put innocent lives in danger from their 250 000 cables. That obviously doesn’t take into account the fact that WikiLeaks haven’t released all 250 000 cables yet – a huge reason being that they are careful in redacting information that shouldn’t be there. As I write this, less than 2000 cables have been released.

At the end of the day, Amazon’s justifications look very weird. Amazon clearly has the right to enforce their terms of service however they want – until someone sues them for breach of contract, of course. But the more insidious part is that it will be very hard to trust Amazon as a host for any kind of interesting data in the future. The capricious nature of the WikiLeaks takedown should worry anyone who depend on Amazon to host their data.

Tableau Software

Tableau Software is a small company that make it possible to do visualizations of different kinds of data and put that online. Think Excel graphs, but on a web page. WikiLeaks used Tableau to create graphs and charts of different kinds of data. These graphs contain information such as what the distribution of cables regarding different subjects are, and so on. An example of a graph can be found here.

So basically, Tableau didn’t host the WikiLeaks data at all. They hosted derivative information based on WikiLeaks data sets.

Tableau published a blog post explaining why they had removed WikiLeaks support. You can find it here. In comparison to Amazon’s press release, it feels refreshingly honest, at least. They explicitly say they removed the content based on Joe Liebermans public request for organizations to terminate their relationships with WikiLeaks. They also cite their terms of service as the reason for actually removing the data. However, that runs into the same problem as Amazon’s justifications. Tableau is saying that WikiLeaks doesn’t have the right to make this content available. But in fact, WikiLeaks right to this data is still up in the air. It could be that they are covered by the First Amendment. It could also be that they are not. But Tableau Software is not a judicial function. They can’t make that decision.

They decided to investigate WikiLeaks, and remove their data, just because Joe Lieberman said it was illegal. That seems like a very convenient power for a senator to have…


The wikileaks.org DNS name was hosted by EveryDNS.net. This company decided to remove the DNS entry for wikileaks.org citing massive DDOS attacks against WikiLeaks. Of all the attacks on WikiLeaks, this is arguably the most problematic one – even if you have a place to host your content, without a working DNS, it is much harder for people to get access to that content.

And what about the justification of EveryDNS? Their public statement clearly states that there was no political pressure involved in this decision. Instead, they say that the reason for dropping the WikiLeaks domain was that the heavy denial of service attacks against WikiLeaks threatened service for the rest of their clients. However, I keep trying to figure out how a DDOS attack could ever threaten one specific DNS provider. Isn’t the whole point of DNS that the records quickly get distributed to any DNS server that requests the entry? Unless the time to live on the WikiLeaks entry is very low, it seems, most lookups for it wouldn’t even touch the EveryDNS infrastructure. So I guess that the only way a DDOS attack could touch EveryDNS would be for the DDOS attack to be targeted against EveryDNS, not against WikiLeaks. The more I think about it, the less I understand how this justification even make sense.

EasyDNS is another DNS provider that got mixed up with EveryDNS – and incorrectly reported as the company that dropped WikiLeaks support. They decided that they had already gotten the bad rep for dropping WikiLeaks, so they could just as well go ahead and host the WikiLeaks DNS entries after EveryDNS dropped them. EasyDNS have reported DDOS attacks, but they haven’t reported it being a problem for their infrastructure.

All of these pieces come together to a picture that just doesn’t make sense. If I’m wrong – can someone explain to me how a DDOS attack can threaten a DNS provider?


On the 3rd of December, PayPal cut off the account of Wau Holland Foundation, an account that had redirected donations to WikiLeaks. PayPal being what it is, I would assume that a large fraction of the donations for WikiLeaks used to come through this channel – and since WikiLeaks doesn’t make money by itself, it lives or dies by donations. The reason PayPal cited was that it was used for activities that encouage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. At a later date, the VP of PayPal clarified that the reason they felt it was illegal content was based on a letter from the State Department to WikiLeaks where the State Department claimed the cables were illegal.

Simply put, the State Department declared something illegal, and the flow of money to WikiLeaks immediately dried up.

It is interesting to note that Wau Holland Foundation are filing legal action against PayPal for blocking its account, and also for libel due to PayPal’s allegations of illegal activity.


PostFinance is a Swiss bank that on the 6th of December froze all the assets of Assange. Their reason for doing this was that Assange had provided false information about his place of residence when opening the account. This might well be true – but it’s hard to not consider how many other people with accounts in Switzerland use their lawyers address as their place of residence. The timing of this action also strains credulity. Why now, PostFinance?

PostFinance happen to be a state run financial institution. The Swiss government have refuted allegations of foul play. However, the Pirate Party in Switzerland claims that the bank didn’t follow a clear legal process when closing the account. There is also the possibility of PostFinance violating client confidentiality laws by releasing information about its business relationship with Assange through a press release.


Further pushing on the limits of coincidence, the same day MasterCard decided to take action against WikiLeaks, by ensuring that MasterCard products can’t be used to donate money to WikiLeaks. Their reason for doing so echo PayPals – MasterCard has rules that prohibit customers from directly or indirectly engaging in or facilitating any action that is illegal.

As many observers have noted, it is still possible to use MasterCard to donate to the Klu Klux Klan.


The next day, Visa Europe decided to follow MasterCard in suspending payments to WikiLeaks pending “further investigations”. As far as I can tell, these further investigations are still pending – and Visa still aren’t processing payments to WikiLeaks. The suspension was initially limited to a weeks time, but it doesn’t seem to have been lifted at this point.

Bank of America

Last week Bank of America announced that they would stop processing any transactions of any type that they have reason to believe are intended for WikiLeaks. Exactly what that means is quite unclear. Bank of America claims that WikiLeaks might be engaged in activities that are inconsistent with their internal policies for processing payments.

I don’t know about you – but the longer this goes on, the more vague the justifications of these companies have become.


A few days before Christmas, Apple decided to remove a WikiLeaks IPad and IPhone application from their App Store. The most confusing thing about this incident is that the app was actually allowed in the App Store for a few days before getting removed. Apple have a reputation for enforcing their developer guidelines very strictly for the App Store. So when Apple removed the application after the fact, based on the developer guidelines, it looked quite weird. If Apple hadn’t allowed the application in the first place though, noone would have been very surprised.

The reasoning Apple cited for removing the app was that applications must comply with all local laws and may not put an individual or group in harm’s way. Exactly which part Apple feels apply to WikiLeaks wasn’t clear from the public statements.

Summary – common themes

Now, almost a month after these series of events started, it gets increasingly hard to justify the WikiLeaks denial of service. Looking back through the behavior of all these parties, I can’t help but notice the common theme – the assumption that WikiLeaks is illegal. This assumption comes from public pronouncements from the State Department and from Senator Joe Lieberman. But the State Department is part of the executive wing of the US government. And the senate is part of the legislative part of the US government. That simply means that neither of these sources can pronounce whether something is illegal or not. Having the State Department and senators pronounce that something is illegal, and then have companies acting on these pronouncements is tantamount to removing the democratic underpinnings of society, and is a very dangerous path to take.

We don’t know how much back room deals have been made to orchestrate the recent events. In come cases it’s obvious that we don’t know everything – in other cases there is a large possibility that the State Department and Joe Liebermans public actions have been enough for the above companies. Either alternative scares me.

UN on Wikileaks

Yesterday, the UN and the Organization of American States issued a joint statement on WikiLeaks. I think it’s a very good statement, and I urge everyone to read it. It contains some sanity in a discourse that so far has sounded almost kafkaesque. Read it here.

Some of the more interesting lines (that I strongly agree with) from this statement are as follows:

“Secrecy laws should define national security precisely and indicate clearly the criteria which should be used in determining whether or not information can be declared secret.”

It seems obvious from the amount of classified documents, and the amount of people with access to such, that the US has failed miserably in this regard. A hopeful future outcome of this whole situation is more precisely defined and enforced laws around secrecy.

In the same sections, this gem appears: “In accordance with international standards, information regarding human rights violations should not be considered secret or classified.” – yes, indeed.

“Such illegitimate interference includes politically motivated legal cases brought against journalists and independent media, and blocking of websites and web domains on political grounds.”

I am very happy to see UN specifically call out the case of politically motivated blocking of websites and web domains. To me, this is one of the more dangerous slippery slopes right now.

“Calls by public officials for illegitimate retributive action are not acceptable.”

Any official who has called for Assange to be treated as a terrorist or enemy combatant should be seriously considering stepping down from office. That one of them is a possible future presidential candidate is a shame to the US.

“Filtering systems which are not end-user controlled – whether imposed by a government or commercial service provider – are a form of prior censorship and cannot be justified. Corporations that provide Internet services should make an effort to ensure that they respect the rights of their clients to use the Internet without arbitrary interference.”

I ended up quoting the whole section five. It is extremely important and at the core of what is happening right now. Seeing filtering systems as censorship means that several companies and governments have clearly been responsible for undue censorship the last few weeks. And if we technologists don’t speak up right now, we risk accepting this behavior. This is why I see Amazon’s behavior as so morally corrupt.

What can you do?

Say that you are convinced. You think that what is happening is a scary precedent for the future, and you believe that the freedom of the Internet is threatened. What can you do? Is there anything anyone can do that actually makes a difference? And do you dare to do it in that case? Should you? I guess most of those questions are up to you. There is definitely something people can do. And it’s important that they do it. But whether you will dare to risk the possible negative attention you will get is up to you.

I wanted to just briefly give a few ideas on things you can do if you want to do something. Of all the things mentioned here, the absolutely most important one is to not keep silent. If you believe what’s happening is problematic, say something. Blog about it. See if your company is interested in making a public statement. Discuss it with your friends (and enemies). Make this issue visible, and make the public aware that there is certainly discontent about these things among us technologists. So if you decide you want to do something, make this your first priority.

Does doing anything actually make a difference? There is this truism about how a perfect traditional economist would never vote – there is no point. So will your specific actions make a difference? Probably not. Except, if no one is doing anything, we have lost for sure. If some of us decide to act, we have the possibility of having an impact at least. I personally feel I have a moral obligation to act – this follows on my reading of current events. If I believe that what is happening is threatening to us, then I can’t just sit back and not do anything. Not acting makes me complicit.

So what can you do? I’m not saying you should do all, or even any of these things. But these are your options if you want to do something. In more or less random order, these are some things you can do:

Host a mirror

There are now over 2000 Wikileaks mirrors online. Most of these are hosted by private individuals or smaller companies outside of the US. It might seems like 2000 is a lot, but there is strength in numbers. And the more people that join the effort to mirror wikileaks, the less chance there is of it ever being threatened to go off the internet again. So host a mirror. The risk is pretty small since there are so many of them now.

From a practical perspective, it’s quite easy to host one. If you have either a domain name (that allow you use a sub-domain) or a stable IP-address (which you can register an address on dyndns with) you can host it. There are good instructions for Ubuntu on the page where you sign up to mirror. You need SSH and RSync (you shouldn’t use FTP). If you happen to have a Solaris server (like I do) you might find that RSync isn’t actually on the path on the server when doing a test run. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to set this path in a way that RSync would see. The magic place to edit is /etc/default/login. Just add a PATH entry pointing to the right directory. Also, remember to make sure your ~/.ssh and ~/.ssh/authorized_keys have the right permissions. After you’re done, just sign up and wait.

Download the insurance file

Wikileaks published an “insurance file” a while back. It’s encrypted and about 1.4Gb large. You won’t be able to open it and see what’s inside – which is the whole point. This file contains information (or random bits), that will be released if something happens to Assange or Wikileaks. This tactic only works if many people have the file lying around and are willing to publish the content if something goes wrong. So fire up your BitTorrent client, search for “wikileaks insurance” on The Pirate Bay and download the file. Put it on any semi permanent storage you have available, and then be prepared. If something were to happen and Wikileaks publishes the encryption key, it’s your responsibility to open up the file and publish whatever is inside.

Attend/Organize rallies and demonstrations

In many places around the world, rallies and demonstrations are being organized. If you feel strongly about these issues, show up and display your support. It is always helpful to meet others who have the same opinion, of course. But the outrage of the public is a great way of getting through. Australia seems to have been leading the way in this section!


There are many worth causes to donate to if you care about these issues. The most obvious one is Wikileaks but there are many other similar organizations. If you care about the harassment of Assange, his legal funds need help. If you care about the plight of Bradley Manning (Army Private being held responsible for the Wikileaks actual leaking), he definitely needs a legal fund. Reports imply that he is held under torture like conditions and have been for a long time. Indications are that he will not get a fair hearing.

There are other organizations that care a lot about the freedom of the Internet. You can find many if you look around. The only one I want to mention here is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.


If you have a blog, I urge you to write about these issues. At the moment I haven’t really seen anyone (except Tim Bray here) from the technology sphere blogging about these things. That scares me a lot. So please! It doesn’t have to be big. Just express your thoughts about these things. My hope is that as more and more people do this, we will see an increase in public opinion.

Register your miscontent with your government representative

Write a letter to your government representative with your thoughts. If they get enough letters like this, we might see a change in the way government approaches these things. Most of us live in a democracy. Use that before it’s too late and we don’t live in a democracy anymore.

Investigate OpenStack and other alternatives to Amazon

There are alternatives in terms of cloud storage and computation. Investigate the alternatives. There are after all many cloud providers out there at the moment. You also have the possibility of creating your own cloud solution on top of OpenStack. Or if you feel like a challenge, start investigating the possibility of a completely open, distributed cloud – something that can never be shut down.


One of the more problematic aspects of the attack on Wikileaks was how quickly EveryDNS pulled their DNS entry. This is only possible because there is a certain amount of centrality built in to the infrastructure of DNS. Peter Sunde have proposed a P2P DNS protocol that might solve the problems inherent in centralized DNS hosting. If you are a programmer, see if you could lend your efforts toward an open source P2PDNS implementation. The infrastructure of the Internet will have to become less vulnurable, and this effort is one of the main ways of accomplishing that.

Cryptography, privacy and anonymity

One of the basic ideas of many legal systems around the world is that your privacy is very important. An even stronger part is the fact that most of us have the right to free speech. Without the possibility of privacy and anonymity, we can never act fully on these rights. That’s for both good and bad – the same tenets can be used to spread things that we don’t agree with, just as extremely important information can be published. It all goes back to Voltaire – a man who’s philosophy was summarized as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Either we defend this or we don’t. And if we don’t we lose our own right to say or think what we will too.

Cryptography is turning out to be a powerful tool to ensure privacy, but also attribution, non-repudiation and integrity. The more we use strong cryptography, the harder it will be for governments to decide what we can and can’t say. And the hard it will be for them to listen in on what we say. There are solutions that allow you surf anonymously (such as TOR), and there are proposols about strong cryptographic solutions that will allow the distribution of data and compution in a safe way across the Internet. If you care about any of the issues raised in this blog, know that strong cryptography is one of the main technical means to a safe future. You should investigate and use crypto as much as possible.

There are proposals to outlaw crypto around the world – and there are many countries where hard drive encryption is already outlawed (such as Russia, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Iran and Iraq). If crypto traffic is outlawed on the Internet, it will be very easy for ISPs to detect and stop such traffic – so it’s important that as many people as possible start using crypto right now. If everyone is using it, it will be impossible for ISPs to block the traffic and remain in business.


There are many things you can do. If you care, I hope you will choose at least one of the options above. Choose a side in these events!

The Silence of the Lambs

One huge aspect of the last two weeks that leaves me more and more concerned is the almost uniform silence from technologists. I can count on one hand the blog posts I’ve seen from individuals or companies expressing their feelings about current events. In Australia there are public rallies. In Sweden I know many people who are speaking up about this. But from the technologists in the US, all I hear is an eerie silence. Why is this?

I guess there are three possible explanations. Maybe people are afraid to express an opinion that can be viewed as antiamerican? Or from a corporate side, maybe the economic and judicial risk of doing this worries people to much. The second alternative is that most technologists just don’t care or think their views will have any effect. The third option is that most companies and technologists actually agree with what the US government is doing, and don’t see anything problematic about it.

All these explanations scare me. If individuals are already too scared to speak up, I think we have already lost. And if most companies can’t see that a free and open internet is in their interest, I also think we have lost. But if there are people keeping quiet because they don’t think their views will have effect, I wish they would reconsider. The only reason their views won’t have effect is if everyone keeps quiet. It can start small and grow. One of my close friends recently mentioned the fact that the boycott of South Africa took over twenty years to have any real impact.

So what about the third option? Maybe I’m naive, but I genuinly think we are living in world changing times. I think that these events send the clear message that we are heading straight for a closed Internet in the style of China. Like Ron Paul has said – “In a society where truth becomes treason, then we’re in big trouble”. I think democracy is in mortal danger.

The brazenly open actions by the US government tells me that they don’t even care that people know how they use extra legal tactics to get their means. And if that’s the case, then they are counting on people not speaking up and protesting. Well, this is our opportunity. This is our chance to speak up and say what we feel about what’s happening. And us technologists should be at the forefront of this. It’s our world that is threatened first.

And if I’m right about this, it means this period might be the last chance we have of saying anything.

Does Assange Matter?

Right now it’s very hard to distinguish what is going on with Assange from what is happening with Wikileaks, and from what is happening with the US governments actions in this mess. But I really think it’s helpful to take a look on whether Assange actually matters or not for what is happening.

There are three ways in which Assange is in focus right now, all intermingled. I regularly have debates where these things gets mixed up in one. The separate foci are the rape charges, the possibility of espionage or treason charges (though Assange isn’t American, so treason would be a long stretch) and his association, control and behavior within Wikileaks. Of course, all these issues touch on each other. So based on that, does Assange actually matter?


From everything I can see, Assange is acting as a figure head for Wikileaks, a public face – a lightning rod, if you will. It seems to be a very conscious decision to let Assange be the well known name and face that everyone associates with Wikileaks. That’s not to say that Assange isn’t an important person in the organization. He probably is. But Assange is not Wikileaks. And if things go haywire and Assange is executed or assassinated, I don’t think Wikileaks will have any trouble continuing with its mission.

I guess that the main reason I feel Assange doesn’t matter is because if his current troubles didn’t exist, I would still feel the same worry about the US governments behavior, both in terms of what the leaks have indicated, and also what their extra legal actions against companies have shown. Take Assange out of the equation and I would still be as worried about the future of world democracy and freedom as I am right now. Whatever Assange has done or hasn’t done doesn’t impact on these events. If anything, it feels like both Wikileaks and the US government is using him as a lightning rod – it seems the media in the US is spending way to much attention on anything related to Assange rather than focusing on what the leaks have revealed and how the government has totally sidestepped due process in persecuting a web page.


There is an argument to be made that without Assange and his personal philosophy, Wikileaks wouldn’t have happened. There is a reason a large number of people voted for Assange to be Time’s person of the year and he seemed to be in the lead for it for a long time. At the end, Time decided to go with Zuckerberg instead, even though he didn’t even have a fraction of the number of votes. So a large number of people (at least 380 000) feels that what Assange has done is important enough to shape history this year – positively or negatively.

But the most important part in why Assange matters to me is the relentless persecution he is being subjected to. It is obvious to anyone who has looked briefly at the story that the US government is trying to lay their hands on Assange, using whatever means they can. This is problematic on several different levels.

The first problem is the extreme insult the current behavior is to all rape victims all over the world. Naomi Wolf wrote a very good post about this aspect, here. The basic principle here is that no other suspected rapists have been treated with this kind of attention. This makes it so obvious that the US, Britain, Sweden and Interpol are just treating this as a pretext. Another aspect of this is the two women who claim to have been subjected to rape. They have to keep hearing over and over again that this is just a honeytrap from the US, this is just a setup, no rape happened, etc. That has to be extremely demoralizing to live through if you’ve been subjected to something like that.

Robert Gates has spoken publicly about this case, noting that it’s common practice for the US government to hold people for lesser crimes while they collect evidence and prepare a larger case. That to me is almost a tacit admission that this is what is going on right now. With the huge difference that both media and a large number of countries are cooperating.

Simply put, the current situation is a disgrace for world democracy and international justice. Calls for “hounding Assange as a terrorist” and to “harass, snatch or neutralize” him, from highly placed US officials, should worry anyone interested in democracy, free speech and a future as far away from 1984 as possible. Assange deserves due legal process just like any other individual.

As with all these things, the precedent set by the current behavior could impact any one of us. The world is changing around us, and we have a chance to say something. That chance might not come again.


Fundamentally, we don’t know what happened in Sweden in August this year. We don’t know whether rape was committed or not. And when things like this happen we have a defined way of handling it – a complaint is filed, an investigation is launched and a possible prosecution is initiated. It follows a legal process that is in many ways similar all over the world. But fundamentally, one of the basic ideas is that you aren’t judged until this process is over. And especially in a case like Assange’s, where there are so many unknowns and weird things are going on. We just can’t know, and we shouldn’t guess about things like this.

It is a bit worrisome that it seems Sweden might extradite Assange to the US. Most observers seem to agree that he won’t fare well, and there are indications that he might be treated as an enemy combatant and possible even being sent to Guantanamo (or any of the other dark military bases).

Another thing that is problematic is how quickly Assange’s name was leaked in this whole story. In Sweden, there is protection for people accused of a crime like rape – but that protection seems to have gone straight through the window with Assange.

Finally, from what is public information, it seems to me that something strange has happened surrounding this rape case. No matter what exactly happened (and my guesss is that something definitely happened) – the actions of Swedish prosecutors, press and police are highly questionable, and implies pressure from the outside. It doesn’t help that Thomas Bodström (former minister of justice) is tightly involved in this case, since he has a history of letting the US tell him how to do his job.

As a Swede, I would very much like to see an independent investigation of what exactly has been going on here, because it definitely doesn’t smell right.

All in all, the issues surrounding Assange are complicated. They also seem to be used by media to sway the debate away from what has actually been revealed from the leaks. I think that’s very unfortunate.