Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wikileaks: What Now?

"This is merely the end of the beginning," Julian Assange triumphantly declared on his release from Wandsworth Prison last week. So what's the next chapter of the Wikileaks saga, and where is all this heading anyway?

Money problems are likely to be the enigmatic Aussie's most immediate concern. A host of US financial institutions - including Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and Bank of America - have already blocked Wikileaks transactions, leaving the organisation struggling to deal effectively with the massive wave of global public attention. Wikileaks have already set up a defense fund for Assange, and changed their bank details so that supporters can still send money. And with a crowd of wealthy supporters assembled, cash flow should be only a short-term problem.

Wikileaks are now preparing to hit back against the banksters. For starters, they have promised to reveal embarrassing details about Bank of America, which they warn could "bring down the bank". They have kindly advised customers to take their money elsewhere before details emerge.

Given US public anger at Wall Street, plus Obama's extension of Bush tax cuts for the rich, it's just possible that such new revelations of banking corruption could spark a change in US public support for Wikileaks. The smear campaign against Assange has been mostly counter-productive around the globe, with ordinary people flocking to support the besieged organisation. But in the USA, where sensationalized television headlines from FOX and CNN dictate the mood, people are more easily swayed.

Wikileaks' negative US public perception could also be improved if Swedish authorities decide to drop the rape charges against Assange. Given the substance of allegations now made public, it's hard to see enough evidence for a UK judge to ever support extradition. So unless the Swedes have some new facts to offer, the case is likely to go no further. At worst, it could further hamper Assange's ability to move freely around the world, but he's hardly likely to travel much now in any case.

More important is the issue of US extradition. It appears the US government is now pressuring Private Bradley Manning to provide incriminating evidence against Julian Assange. If they can do that, or find some other rap to pin on him, then they will be relentless in pressuring their international partners to hand him over into US custody. If that happens, Assange will assuredly be locked away indefinitely. Guantanamo Bay, anyone?

But meanwhile, and whatever happens to Assange, it is clear that the Wikileaks team will continue working. The US Embassy Cables will continue eroding Washington's credibility on the world stage, which has already suffered greatly from the lies surrounding Iraq WMDs. US "soft power" will continue to plummet along with its economic power. And Wikileaks will continue looking to publish more leaks from other sources.

That is a critical issue. Will more leakers come forward, gradually transforming the way information moves through government and the media? Or will prospective leakers be warned off by the treatment the US government is currently dishing out to Assange and Manning? Well, I think the answer is already evident: the harder the US government and its political allies have tried to shut down Wikileaks, the stronger the organisation has become.

Since the US first shut down the original Wikileaks website, more than 2,000 "mirrored" sites have sprung up. There are now a host of copycat "leaks" sites springing up around the globe, employing the same business model and technology as Wikileaks. A new social movement has already been born.

Holed up in a snowy English mansion while his legal battles continue, I can't help wondering if Julian Assange is not just a little surprised to see how quickly all this has evolved, and how effectively his plans to challenge great power have proved true. What next? Stay tuned.

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