The eviction of Julian Assange from London’s Ecuadorian embassy is a strange irony. He saw himself as a warrior for truth across the boundless paradise of the web, where people could make their own rules. Now he finds himself badly in need of a secure border, a friendly judge and legal protections.
Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012. He was fleeing not a furious US government seeking revenge for his placing a million of its secret cables on the internet, but a Swedish arrest warrant for something as un-digital as a suspected rape (which he has always denied). Two years ago the Swedes dropped the warrant and suspended its investigation, while a change of regime in Ecuador led to negotiations for his eviction.
The ball is now in the British government’s court. Washington has charged Assange and asked for his extradition. Britain has tended to agree to such requests. Whether Assange would get a “fair trial” must be moot. In British eyes his sin might be seen as exploring the wilder shores of journalism, gleaning secrets Washington had failed to protect. Besides, he has served seven years of virtual imprisonment. His speedy removal to his Australian homeland would be the simplest way out.
Among the first generation of leakers for freedom, it was Edward Snowdenwho ranked as a hero. He was a dedicated, rather conservative, civil servant who discovered congress was being systematically deceived by his superiors in the National Security Agency (NSA). They were using the internet to intrude on personal communications, often in collusion with private corporations. He took a calculated risk in the cause of liberty, and is paying a heavy price for it.
Assange’s publication, through his organisation, WikiLeaks, of videos passed on by US soldier Chelsea Manning was a journalistic scoop. They showed the appalling casualness with which US planes were killing people on the ground in Iraq, and as such the videos performed a public service. But WikiLeaks’ decision, after a period of collaboration with its mainstream media partners including the Guardian, to publish its full archive of diplomatic cables unredacted was widely condemned.
Today, the experiences of Snowden and Assange speak volumes for the absence of rules to rein in internet anarchy. Vast state resources are devoted to the same tasks Assange was doing freelance. Compared with the alleged cyber-activities of the Chinese and Russian governments – and presumably our own – Assange was a kid in an attic. And as fast as national agencies struggle to secure their secrets, the dark riders of the web are overtaking them.