Skip to main content

Assange's stubborn grip hurt WikiLeaks

By Micah Sifry, Special to CNN
August 17, 2012 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
 A document that says that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is to be arrested in any circumstances if he comes out of the Embassy of Ecuador is seen on a police officer's clipboard. (Editor's note: Part of the document has been pixelated by Press Association news agency.) A document that says that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is to be arrested in any circumstances if he comes out of the Embassy of Ecuador is seen on a police officer's clipboard. (Editor's note: Part of the document has been pixelated by Press Association news agency.)
HIDE CAPTION
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
What now for Assange?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Micah Sifry: Ecuador has given asylum to WikiLeaks' Assange, wanted on rape charges
  • Sifry: Ironic that founder of the "stateless" Wikileaks turns to nation poor on press freedom
  • He says Assange "point of failure" for WikiLeaks, refusing to cede control
  • Sifry: Cause of transparency is bigger than legal troubles of one brilliant, flawed individual

Editor's note: Micah Sifry is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a website that examines how technology is changing politics, and the author of "WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency."

(CNN) -- Julian Assange was back in the news on Thursday because, after nearly two months of holding out in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning, he has been granted "political asylum" by the Ecuadorean government. The decision has set off a diplomatic stand-off, with the UK government threatening to revoke the embassy's diplomatic status and Ecuador responding with anger.

There's something deeply ironic, and sad, about watching WikiLeaks' founder turn to a country with a terrible record on press freedom to avoid falling into the hands of another government, or governments, if you count the United States as the other major player in this melodrama. That's because the original promise of WikiLeaks was that as a "stateless" news organization, to use press critic Jay Rosen's phrase, living on the Internet, WikiLeaks might be able to escape the pressures nearly all media organizations must deal with from their local host countries.

In theory, WikiLeaks could have avoided this fate, but only if Julian Assange hadn't insisted on maintaining complete control of the organization even after his personal legal troubles emerged.

Micah Sifry
Micah Sifry

Standoff at embassy, after Ecuador grants asylum to WikiLeaks' Assange

Since August 20, 2010, when Swedish authorities issued an international warrant for Assange's arrest on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion (he has has denied the allegations), the transparency site has been in crisis. "We had ... conceived of ourselves as a neutral submission platform, pure technology, and not a political agitator with a Twitter account," writes Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange's one-time lieutenant, in his valuable book "Inside WikiLeaks:" "It was Julian who made the decisions. The rest of us were too indecisive and skittish or simply lacked the resolve to set any limits for him. Julian thus became the autocratic head of WL, accountable to no one and tolerating no challenges to his authority."

When the sex charges were made public, Domscheit-Berg and other key WikiLeaks volunteers -- including Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic MP who had helped publicize the famous "helicopter shooting video" that first signaled WikiLeaks turn from neutrality toward explicit political agitation -- tried to get Assange to step aside for the good of the organization. It should go without saying, but people who want to hold others to high ethical standards have to themselves be beyond reproach. Unfortunately, in the weeks after those charges arose, Assange kept a tight and unrelenting grip, a story that Domscheit-Berg details in his book.

Waiting for Assange to make a move
Why did Ecuador grant Assange asylum?
Can Assange leave London?

During a climactic online meeting on September 14, 2010, WikiLeaks' inner circle, which also included a mysterious master coder referred to as "the architect," met for what would be their last group conversation. Assange was angry about comments Jonsdottir had made to the Daily Beast: "I am not angry with Julian, but this is a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand," she told reporter Philip Shenon. "These personal matters should have nothing to do with WikiLeaks. I have strongly urged him to focus on the legalities that he's dealing with and let some other people carry the torch."

But Assange refused to back down, saying, essentially, "WikiLeaks, c'est moi." According to Domscheit-Berg's account, Jonsdottir responded, "So what you are saying Julian is that you are wl [sic] and everyone else just your servants who you allocate trust to."

Timeline: Julian Assange's extradition battle

There's a reason why it's hard to censor online speech. The Internet was designed to make it easy to move information to route around points of failure. And so, when WikiLeaks started publishing its seminal document dumps of the Afghanistan and Iraq war files, and then compounded that with its tempered release of the State Department cables, it was impossible to stop.

When U.S. government actors put pressure on American companies like Amazon to stop providing Web services to WikiLeaks, mirror sites flowered to ensure that these materials would stay available, even after the main WikiLeaks.org site was taken off the domain name system. The idea of a transnational news organization that anyone could safely and anonymously leak to, in order to blow the whistle on all kinds of official misbehavior, and that no single government could intimidate, seemed unstoppable.

But as has become clear, WikiLeaks was not like the Internet it lives on: It also had a single, internal point of failure. When Assange stumbled in his personal life (and that's the most charitable way to put it), his response to the crisis broke the trust of his closest allies. Not only did Domscheit-Berg and Jonsdottir stop working with WikiLeaks, so did the "architect," who took the software that had enabled the site to safely receive anonymous leaks.

Since then, WikiLeaks has produced little beyond what hackers reportedly connected to Anonymous have given it: The Stratfor e-mail archive, which has proven to be of fairly little real value beyond illuminating some of the sleazier business practices of the private security industry, and most recently e-mails from inside the Syrian government. Last year, Assange burned what little moral capital he had left when he decided to post the full, unexpurgated State Department cable database, exposing innocent people to potential harm. It's a far cry from WikiLeaks' years of constant output of vital documents exposing corporate and governmental misconduct around the world.

To avoid potential extradition to Sweden and then, hypothetically from there to the United States, Assange is hoping to go to Ecuador, whose government has been friendly to his cause. But Ecuador itself is hardly a safe haven for press freedom. As the Washington Post recently reported:

"Press freedom advocates say that no other country in Latin America is moving so fast and on so many fronts to restrain the media as tiny, banana-producing Ecuador. President Rafael Correa, an American-educated leftist economist who has forged close alliances with Cuba and Iran, has filed a defamation lawsuit that might put the three directors of the country's largest newspaper in jail and shutter their 90-year-old paper. The government has cobbled together a framework of laws and constitutional revisions to limit press independence, free expression groups say, while building a media conglomerate to disparage critics and counter independent media reports."

There's no reason to believe that if WikiLeaks is based in Ecuador, it won't be subject to similar pressures.

Media circus descends on Assange embassy

The cause of transparency is far, far bigger than the legal troubles of one brilliant, courageous but ultimately flawed individual. Britain ought to let Assange flee to Ecuador, because there's little chance he can get a fair trial in either Sweden or the United States. But then let's be done with him. Those of us who want freedom of information to thrive should learn a key lesson from Assange's case. For information to flow freely, there can't be any single point of control.

This commentary is adapted from an essay that appeared on Techpresident.com

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Micah Sifry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT