The Persecution of Julian Assange and Privatized Censorship

With the Wikileaks model Julian Assange became an innovator in, depending on your point of view, investigative journalism or revolutionary anarchy. He then became the unfortunate subject of innovation–of the sort of censorship we’re now seeing applied to genuine political dissent.

Wikileaks was briefly the darling of the Bush-era media before going too far, apparently, with “Cablegate“, the publication of thousands of US Embassy communications, in 2010.

The deep state counter-assault has been effective in pressuring private enterprise to abandon Assange and his organization, and while it hasn’t been able to get Assange (though it’s still not clear US authorities should really want him and the trouble he might represent), it’s kept Wikileaks on its heels and support for Assange to a minimum.

From a working draft of a Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review paper I found useful:

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?  

Denial of service attacks by an extralegal public-private partnership 

…Beginning a few hours after the release of the first embassy cables, the Wikileaks site  came under a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. A pattern of denial of service attacks continued over the next few weeks. It is difficult to pin down whether these attacks came from government.

On December 1 Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, launched a different kind of denial of service attack. Lieberman released a statement in which he stated: “I call on any other company or organization that is hosting Wikileaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them. Wikileaks’ illegal, outrageous, and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world. No responsible company – whether American or foreign – should assist Wikileaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials.”

If we were to consider what judicial process would be required for the government to exert this kind of force directly—cutting off technical infrastructures and excluding an organization from the payment systems—because of the content of information that organization disseminated, the barriers in law would have been practically insurmountable. However, the implicit alliance, a public-private partnership between the firms that operate the infrastructure and the government that encourages them to help in its war on terror, embodied by this particularly irritating organization, was able to achieve extra-legally much more than law would have allowed the state to do by itself.

The campaign against Wikileaks was the sort of public-private partnership we see now being waged against purveyors of “Hate”, where censorship is effected by private enterprise through such as denial of hosting and pay services.
The companies are compliant where they aren’t taking the initiative, the corporate equivalent of Steve Sailer’s “voluntary auxiliary thought police”–with whom they are staffed.

Censorship is privatized, and made unaccountable.

Once the charge Assange had endangered lives was made plausible the signaling contest set in, its reaches defined, of course, by calls for execution, taken up by more than one politician. This parallels the present narrative assault on nationalism, with a theme trumpeted by allied media and taken up by enthusiastic, or desperate, individuals and organizations. One of their concerns, of course, is not to fall afoul of the whole process themselves.

The sociopolitical framing makes more comprehensible the vigilante responses in other subsystems of the information environment. Responding to a call from Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, several commercial organizations tried to shut down Wikileaks by denial of service of the basic systems under their respective control. Wikileaks’ domain name server provider, EveryDNS, stopped pointing at the domain “wikileaks.org,” trying to make it unreachable. 

Amazon, whose cloud computing platform was hosting Wikileaks data, cut off hosting services for the site, and Apple pulled a Wikileaks App from its App Store. Banks and payment companies, like Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, and Bank of America, as well as the Swiss postal bank, cut off payment service to Wikileaks in an effort to put pressure on the site’s ability to raise money from supporters around the world. These private company actions likely responded to concerns about being associated publicly with “undesirables.” There is no clear evidence that these acts were done at the direction of a government official with authority to coerce it. 

The sole acknowledged direct action was a public appeal for, and subsequent praise of, these actions by Senator Joe Liberman. In that regard, these acts represent a direct vulnerability in the private infrastructure system and a potential pathway of public censorship. It is impossible to ignore the role that a diffuse, even if uncoordinated set of acts by government officials, beginning with the phrasing of Harold Koh’s letter to Wikileaks from November 27th, cited by PayPal as its reason for closure, and through to various public statements and organizational actions, played in triggering the commercial services denial of service attack. 

In combination, the feedback from public to private action presents the risk of a government able to circumvent normal constitutional protections to crack down on critics who use the networked public sphere. This occurs through informal systems of pressure and approval on market actors who are not themselves subject to the constitutional constraints. This extralegal public-private partnership allows an administration to achieve through a multi-system attack on critics results that would have been practically impossible to achieve within the bounds of the constitution and the requirements of legality. 

Honk honk.

One thought on “The Persecution of Julian Assange and Privatized Censorship

  1. This is one of the glaring gaps in the ideology of libertarians. By their (somewhat incoherent) account, a private company is not capable of carrying out censorship in the way a government is. What we are seeing is that precisely the opposite is the case: The government consists of whomever has effective governance of behavior. If a private company dominates the media of communication, they are capable of suppressing dissent on a scale which \”state actors\” really can't on their own. As we see from your article the difference between them is in fact quite blurry as their collusion becomes more explicit.

    Like

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