Revolutions have a habit of being upheavals that are messy and tumultuous. Despite the gains, revolutions are also about the death of pre-existing systems. The French Revolution and the American Revolution are examples. Egalitarianism and democracy had bloody beginnings.
The digital revolution has been another milestone in human evolution, but it’s also proving to be no less bloody and confronting. Bloody, because social networking and the fear of its power has galvanized governments into paroxysms of censorship and repression (e.g., the fallout following the Arab Spring, and subsequent clampdowns by dictators across the globe).
The digital revolution promised to upend long established political systems that ruled from the top down, and which had created cultures of the rulers and the ruled. But this digital revolution that initially promised so much freedom and equality is now loathed by governments. These governments actively seek to control and stifle it, or, even worse, use digital tools to spy on their own citizens.
The cases against Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are examples of how governments want to punish those who challenge and breach their digital hegemony.
Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, confronted the USA by publishing a series of leaks provided by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. These leaks included the Collateral Murder video in 2010, the Afghanistan War Logs (July 2010) the Iraq War Logs (October 2010) and Cablegate (November 2010). The grim Collateral Murder video was taken by US attack helicopters in Iraq, and shows the killing of suspected terrorists. At least one of these ‘terrorists’ was a Reuter journalist.
After these leaks, the United States government launched a criminal investigation into Wikileaks and its founder.
This investigation intensified when Wikileaks became involved in the release of the John Podesta emails. John Podesta was the US chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. These emails proved to be damaging to Clinton’s campaign and it has subsequently been claimed that Wikileaks was a willing conduit for these emails that had been hacked by a Russian group to influence the American presidential elections.
It’s not surprising that the USA now wants to try the Wikileaks co-founder over allegations of leaking government secrets. Assange is wanted in the USA to face 1 hacking charge and 17 espionage charges. The penalties for these charges add up to 175 years. There is no parole in US federal prisons, and also, a prison such as Guantanamo has not been ruled out.
The prospects for Assange look bleak.
Assange’s statement to the court was that he was up against a ‘superpower’ with ‘unlimited resources’ and that, still in jail (after serving his sentence) “I can’t research anything. I can’t access any of my writing.”
The Edward Snowden case raises other questions about how much private information governments should be able to monitor, record and analyze. What right do we have to personal privacy in the digital age and the surveillance state? What are the rights of a whistleblower who alerts the public to illegal activities by government?
Snowden is currently in self-imposed exile in Russia after revealing that the US government was illegally bulk collecting any or all electronic communication by US citizens.
According to Snowden, America’s NSA (National Security Agency) had developed and was using programs that transformed the agency’s mission “from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it by redefining citizen’s private Internet communication as potential signals intelligence.”
Even worse, according to Snowden, the USA was compiling this meta data into permanent archives that could be searched in any way by governments and used for any purpose – without the knowledge of the individuals who had originally created this information. And then, the government had publicly denied this capability or practice. (Snowden, 2019 pp172-173 & 247). To what extent do we have a right to privacy?
There are still idealists who believe that the rule of law can control the digital revolution in the public interest. Regulation is the key, they claim, so that the user can control their digital profile to choose what information should be available and what information should remain secret.
In an ideal world, yes, of course. But no government has yet demonstrated its willingness to surrender oversight of its digital surveillance systems. And the cases against Assange and Snowden illustrate that even so-called free nations will refuse to loosen their controls.