The historical opportunity of Julian Assange

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In researching this article on the Lulzsec case, I had a great chat with journalist Misha Glenny, who is very familiar with the world of hackers after years researching the terrific non-fiction thriller DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You (which I had the pleasure of reviewing for The Irish Times last year).

While discussing the hacktivism of Anonymous and Lulzsec, Glenny made some interesting points about the ultimate failure of Julian Assange to take on the leadership role that this movement so obviously needs. I partially quoted Glenny on these points, but I think it’s worth quoting his thoughts in full.

“In this sense, Anonymous can be seen to an extent as an authentic representative of an atomised, disaffected, young political class which is seeking to express itself in the way that it knows best, ie through the internet.

The problem with Anonymous is their anonymity. They can be very easily lured into a criminal atmosphere, and where you can see the connections is in things like their ideology. The half-baked anti-statist anarchism that you can read on forums associated with Anonymous is exactly the same type of anti-statist language you can read on criminal forums too.

This is the thing about Assange – he had an opportunity, an historical opportunity last year to articulate a coherent ideology for those who do not wish to see the state assuming full control of what you can and can’t do over the internet. Unfortunately, I think, because of his own personal and personality failings, he was unable to seize that opportunity, and instead got sort of too involved in his own sense of self and image.

That was a real chance for that to happen, you could have had an articulate, elegant manifesto that people could seize upon as a political tool. As it is, I think it’s going to remain a disparate, but not unimportant movement for a long time, around a series of diverse issues, as diverse as freedom of speech on the one hand, Megaupload on the other hand, corporate malfeasance, and hostility to corporate malfeasance. And of course the stuff they [Anonymous] are doing in really interesting parts of the world, like the attacks on Boko Haram and the support for the Syrian opposition and things like that. These are very noble gestures, no one else is giving much help to the Syrian opposition.”

I came to a similar conclusion in reviewing Assange’s so-called Unauthorised Autobriography last October. “The extraordinary promise of WikiLeaks, a mechanism for speaking truth to power and removing the veil of secrecy that powerful interests rely on, has long been overwhelmed by the idiosyncratic personality of Julian Assange,” I wrote then. “In terms of explaining his motivations for founding WikiLeaks, the book is rather less successful: his guiding philosophy is woolly and poorly articulated, a kind of utopian digital libertarianism.”

The regrettable thing is that there may not be an opportunity like it again.

 

 

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