WikiLeaks saga far from a David and Goliath tale

By Dev Nadkarni

No matter that most people are wont to debunk them, everyone loves the juiciness of a conspiracy theory. Nearly every major historical event has at least one popular conspiracy theory that fires the public imagination and lingers long enough to form the leitmotif of alternative lore, which manages to cast its telling shadow on some aspects of the generally accepted “official” record.

The assassinations of US presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, the “real” reasons for the sinking of the Titanic, the raft of UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings in the 1950s and 1960s, the moon walk of 1969 and nearer our times, September 11, 2001 – all have the choicest conspiracy theories woven around them.

These theories have been preserved in hundreds of books and magazines – many of them bestsellers no matter how crackpot they may sound – dozens of films and television shows and of course countless YouTube videos and digital files on the internet.

The latest major event to spawn a juicy conspiracy theory is the WikiLeaks saga. Amid reports that catalogued the unfolding of the 250,000-document leak – more a torrent than a leak, really – and their publication by media across the world, a convincing theory, as in the manner of almost all conspiracy theories, has surfaced.

There is a school of thought that believes that the whole WikiLeaks saga was a planned operation of a consortium of the big, bad, super secretive, completely opaque and ruthless, faceless intelligence organisations of the Western world. A ploy to find the strongest possible justification to control the free flow of information in the world via the bugbear of all manner of secrets – the internet.

The argument here is that it would not have been possible for a disgruntled, lowly soldier, now held in solitary confinement in a prison in Virginia, USA, to have had access to such a cornucopia of classified documents on such diverse matters at his station in the Middle East without help from higher officials who were responsible for the secrecy of the documents.

Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories or for that matter even those about the lunar landing and others, this theory too is sure to have its diehard believers and defenders.

The ingredients for a choice, spicily juicy recipe are all there: The internet has grown at the speed of light into an unbelievably big, amorphous beast. In its wake it has dissolved political and geographical boundaries and is all but out of reach of brick and mortar jurisdictional authority, challenging every statute in every country’s ‘book of authority’ as it were.

Like nothing else in history the internet has enabled the convergence of the flow of ideas, two way communication, mass communication as in publishing, sound and visual broadcasting as well as commerce, besides much else in one single handheld device, often independent of location.

The high barriers to the power afforded by the ownership and control over traditional media have not only been lowered but have been destroyed. One does not need to have millions of dollars to become a broadcaster – any blogger will vouch for that.

Why, the man at the centre of the WikiLeaks saga, Julian Assange, is an acclaimed homeless individual with none of the trappings of a traditional media magnate or the halo of a celebrity editor. Suddenly, the individual has been placed on an even keel with traditional big money, big power, big muscle authority.

It is undoubtedly a nightmare for everyone that has something to hide. And governments and politicians everywhere have the most to hide, no matter how much democracy, fair play and transparency they may profess. Doublespeak is the stuff of politics and it is abundantly evident in the leaked documents.

In fact, few of the documents would take the informed citizen by surprise. Journalists, commentators and citizens who follow events closely all along suspected what has been released. For instance, Fiji had been saying all along that New Zealand and Australia were spying on it. That has now been confirmed.

Last year I wrote a piece in a New Zealand newspaper that the US was worried that Pakistan’s nuclear devices could easily fall into the hands of Taliban terrorists who were lurking ever closer to the country’s nuclear installations. The US officially denied this all along saying that the Pentagon was in close touch with Pakistan’s chain of command and there was no question of a worry. The leaks though tell the real story. The US was worried as hell. And still is – as it should be.

So there is every reason for authority to worry about the burgeoning, completely individualised, hard-to-pin-down, on-the-fly power of the internet. It has the potential to leave governments bereft of the clothes they wear, exposing them for all to see. There is a very good case, indeed, to clamp down on it in the name of national interest, sovereignty, security and peace.

Whether the conspiracy theorists are right or wrong in their contention that governments initiated the leaks to gain control of the internet does not really matter. But their belief has a grain of truth and that is what matters – rather disturbingly: we are beginning to see early moves in the world’s governments toward toying with ideas about, yes, you guessed right, regulating the internet.

There have been media reports that the United Nations is actually considering a consortium of an inter governmental working group to “to harmonise global efforts by policy makers to regulate the internet”.

The meeting, which took place in New York days before Christmas discussed the possibility of forming a global body consisting of government representatives to create standards for policing the internet. And it clearly states that this is specifically in response to the WikiLeaks phenomenon.

At first instance, the world appears divided on this. There is one group of countries that is openly eager and another that appears to be more cautious. No prizes for matching the countries to their respective groups. Their reputation – or the lack of it – for upholding liberty, equality and egalitarianism in both letter and spirit is a dead giveaway.

India, South Africa, China and Saudi Arabia seem to rather readily support the idea of a new inter-governmental regulatory body to police the internet. The US, Canada, the UK, Belgium and Australia, as also community and business representatives have raised the cautionary flag.

So, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Big Brother does want to control at least some of the gates to the internet – the simplest, biggest and most potent purveyor of freedom ever known to mankind.

First appeared in Islands Business, January 2011