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Julian Assange: A Criminal or a Champion of Open Society?

An analytical review of ‘Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography’

Sibichen K Mathew

Sociologists and Psychologists say that a person’s early childhood experiences have a bearing on his personality as he grows up as an adult. This is found to be very true in the case of Julian Assange, an organized full-time hacker who has institutionalized ‘hacking’ and ‘leaking’ classified and confidential information of individuals, entities and states. He calls it ‘ethical’ and considers it as truthful and in the interest of public.

Unlike other children who uttered 'pa' or 'ma' as his first word, baby Julian cried 'why?'. And the parents (the mother, father and the stepfathers in his life) weren’t shy of his ‘why?’ He preferred books to toys.  Had to stay in more than fifty towns in Australia and studied in more than thirty schools, mostly in the suburbs. So he was always labelled as a ‘new boy’ in every school. He found the school to be an agony of boredom and a place of slow learning. He was subjected to corporal punishment by one of the school principals based on a false accusation. He hated the school system.

Was he deviant in his teenage years? May be, if we compare his lifestyles with others', of the same age, of the same time. He started keeping his hair very long in spite of injunctions not to. He was often been ridiculed or judged on account of his hair. He defied the instructions of both teachers and his mother and the stepfather. He refused to tie his shoelaces in the normal way and devised an elaborate system of wrapping the laces round the ankle and tying a knot rather than a bow, and began to teach the method to other kids. Later he dispensed with shoes altogether. 

Young Assange keenly observed how his activist mother participated in the protests against war, uranium mining, harmful fishing practices, logging in rainforests. He thus gained firm education in the arts of political persuasion. But the life of the mother and son were like fugitives, as the mother experienced the trauma of repeated marital break down. All these childhood experiences have very deeply influenced the personality of Assange.

Influence of the invisible father

Many Sociologists (Nature-Nature debate)   are of the opinion that about 80% of one’s personality is influenced by the ‘environment’ and just 20% is attributed to Heredity. In the case of Assange, though the childhood experiences and the family background have greatly influenced his personality, there is a clear genetic influence. That is what Assange also believes. The book speaks about Assange’s discovery that he, in fact, was following his father’s footsteps as far his literary interests were concerned, without knowing him and his interests. He was amazed to find out on his father’s book shelves, the same set of books he had purchased and read. He says with pain: ‘I suddenly realised I had started from the bottom of myself, on the first rung, and built myself up via many trials and tribulations, when, all the time, if I had only known him, I might just have picked his books down from the shelf.’ He regretted that if he had known him, he would have built faster.
The hacking adventures of Cypherpunks

  A man from a socially marginal family grew tall to be a well-known person across the globe through the most unexpected route. The Commodore 64 computer which he saw in a shop window transformed him to the world of cyberspace.  While Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were acclaimed for their creativity in Information Technology, Assange became popular (or infamous) for finding holes in the systems created by them. His team, comprised of either eccentric persons or persons with anxiety disorders and mostly from dysfunctional families, started their hacking adventures with the computer network through which most of the countries ran their classified computer sites. These ‘cypherpunks’ thought that information derived from these locations, just for the sake of fun, can be a major tool in the fight for social change. They wandered through the corridors of US Air Force in the Pentagon, tramped through Motorola, padded through Xerox, and swam down into the US Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station.

Tax evasion and money laundering by global financial institutions

Assange believed that his treasure hunting projects are a synthesis of a mathematical truth and a moral necessity. And he claimed that they can nip corruption scientifically rather than through street riots, human rights struggles or electoral reforms. He investigated the international money laundering and tax evasion rackets. Information gathered on perusal of a confidential report prepared by a company commissioned by Kibaki regime to find out what happened to the money embezzled by formerpresident Moi, indicated that many globally reported financial institutions were involved  in maintaining or laundering stolen, dirty money. It showed exactly how much money had been routed through other jurisdictions, wearing a new disguise at each stage, often ending up in tax havens. They found how these institutions based at tax havens facilitated asset-hiding and tax minimization (tax avoidance), and they believed that for public interest, they should reveal what these people were doing and to what extent they were doing it.

From Guantanamo Bay to Bhopal

Wikileaks released over half million US National text pager intercepts relating to September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. It used anonymous sources of information and leaked details related to Guantanamo Bay, US Military equipment in Iraq, Confidential Congressional Reports, Confidential Climate Change Agreements, Frauds within Multi-National Corporations, Internet Censorships in countries etc.  Wikileaks released a database of hundreds of documents from as many as 160 ‘intelligence contractors’ in the ‘mass surveillance industry’. On February 27, 2012 wikileaks published what they called ‘Global Intelligence Files’ which are about 500 million e-mails (of the period from 2004 to 2011). It was claimed that these e-mails revealed confidential communications of various companies, indicating the dubious role played by the Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Company

Act in public interest or sheer crime?

How can a person who claims to be the champion of freedom of information thwart the privacy of individuals and institutions? How can a person who claims to be engaged in ethical mission commit the crime of unauthorized snooping and stealing secret information? How can a person disseminate information that seriously damages the security, peace and reputation of states and global institutions? These are some of the questions that emerge in this context.

Assange and his team believe that they are spearheading a movement that is just, equitable and  ethical. Though started for fun, their activities, they feel have exposed the abuse of power by authorities, corruption by the mighty, and opened up the truth to the world. Assange team preferred to leave it to history to judge what was in the ‘public interest’ and what was not.  They proved that a few individuals can wield power through knowledge (‘clever mathematics’) to threaten even the most powerful state.

Assange said in an interview:   

 ‘….so if you and I agree on a particular encryption code, and it is mathematically strong, then the forces of every superpower brought to bear on that code still cannot crack it. So a state can desire to do something to an individual, yet it is simply not possible for the state to do it – and in this sense, Mathematics and individuals are stronger than Superpowers”
An incomplete book

The biography is an unauthorized one. Obviously, it has to be incomplete and marred by errors. The ‘subject’ can justly accuse the ‘author’ for every damn thing in the book, and escape any possible defamation suit or any criminal case on the basis of what is written or and about whom. Do you smell any conspiracy in this?

This could be the first ‘unauthorized autobiography’ (strange combination of words indeed) in history, though Assange could pay off his lawyers with the help of the advance from the publisher. Assange clearly stated in his interviews: “I am not the writer of this book’. The ‘ghost writer’ Andrew O’ Hagan prepared his first draft after conversing many days with Julian Assange. And Canongate did not have the patience to get it ‘corrected’ or ‘fact checked’. They shipped the books to stores all over the world in haste, and the critics (of wikileaks or Canongate?) laughed declaring that only less than 500 copies sold in the first few days! He wrote in the wikileaks website: ‘The entire book was to be heavily modified, extended and revised in particular, to take into account the privacy of the individuals mentioned in the book’. Certainly, money would pour in even if this is an incomplete work. But as the accounts of Assange are under attachment and monitoring, Canongate is ‘justified’ (any wise publisher in similar circumstances would) in deciding to declare the book as unauthorized. 

Though the book is a narrative and literary interpretation of a conversation between O’Hagan and Assange, it could be seen that it is a ‘work-in-progress’. The story of Julian Assange is incomplete on two accounts. First, the book itself has not captured him and his life in its entirety. Second, his agenda and mission are still incomplete and unfinished. Probably, we may have to wait for an authorized autobiography in the near future.

In spite of all its defects and incompleteness, this ‘part-memoir, part-manifesto’  clearly and interestingly unfolds the journey of Julian Assange and the Wikileaks. Julian Assange , undoubtedly, has become an icon of the century. An icon of what one would call the ‘open society’.

Some interesting excerpts from the book are given below:

“No longer a case simply of Big Brother watching you, but of Big Brother controlling your fingers, the movement of your mind, and keeping you from finding the world and its information on your own terms. Big Brother is home. He is installed in the item you just dragged home from the apple store.” (p.97)

“In order to examine the way that information moves around the world you would have to be interested in the whole pipeline: who makes the pipeline, who pays for it, who maintains it, and whether it is blocked anywhere or whether the flow is hindered.” (p.113)

“We cannot trust newspapers alone, as they have proved again and again to be both censors and partisans. We cannot trust broadcasters, who show, in most cases, that the value of advertising is more compelling to them than news values. … We work with them because we do not wish to be rivals: we wish to pool resources, but they, …struggle with the notion of their own legitimacy in the computer age, and with the machinations of their own egos” (p.120)

“Vanity in a newspaper man is like perfume on a whore: they use it to fend off a dark whiff of themselves”

    [Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography (2011), Great Britain, Canongate]

(Above review and analysis are purely academic in nature. The author does not necessarily subscribe to any of the views mentioned in the above book or in the links given in this article. The authenticity of the data in the links cited is not verified. ) [Thanks to Sajjive for the caricature]

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  1. A clever criminal or an accidental champion or vice versa! Very interesting personality! SIndhu

  2. It is amazing to me that even after so long, I am still on the fence about this man. While I feel no government should hide from its people, is going ahead and 'stealing' information the right answer?
    In the Indian context, I feel Arvind Kejriwal is like our Assange...


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