Assange Is a Jerk. So What?
Why it takes flawed characters like WikiLeaks' Julian Assange to make governments behave better.
Will all this make us more cynical rather than more demanding? Will it make governments more opaque rather than more transparent? Are we headed for an era of more paranoia about secrets, including less sharing of useful information?
If the cure is to be worse than the disease, to quote Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Andrew Rasiej, let's find a better cure: Let's make the proper distinction between what should be secret and what everyone knows. Let's foster more transparency about the institutions that have power over us so that a WikiLeaks is no longer necessary or justifiable.
So far, little damage has been done—and little positive change accomplished. The American reaction has been over the top. It called on Amazon to cancel its contract with WikiLeaks, while PayPal shut off WikiLeaks' account—apparently without even being asked. Why is it that the call for transparency seems to apply only to countries that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits, rather than to the one that she represents?
I recently talked with an establishment stalwart who told me how much more difficult these leaks will make it for the U.S. diplomatic corps to accomplish its putatively worthy goals. But is diplomatic convenience really so important? Perhaps it's useful for us all to understand how things actually work. In any case, the official reaction is overkill.
In the long run, WikiLeaks matters for two reasons. The first is that we need a better balance of power between people and power. Information—and specifically the Internet's power to spread it—is our best defense against bad, unaccountable behavior.
Second, we do want to trust our governments and institutions. The point of openness is to make those in power behave better—and to make us trust them more. Rather than viewing them as enemies, we should know what they are up to and perhaps have a little more say in what they do.
Making that happen requires someone willing to face opprobrium, jail, and a life of surveillance. I wish Julian Assange were a better person, but better people are not rising to the challenge.
This article comes from Project Syndicate.
Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, health care, private aviation, and space travel.
Photograph of a detail from the Interpol website showing the appeal for the arrest of the editor-in-chief of the Wikileaks whistle-blowing Web site, Julian Assange by Getty Images.