The images of Assange’s arrest by Scotland Yard officers mark the end of an era of online activism—through an act of betrayal. Alone, tired and getting on in years, he had become a nuisance for his Ecuadorian hosts, a thorn in the side of Ecuador’s relations with the United States.
Washington, and the Pentagon in particular, have been very keen on bringing Assange down, after WikiLeaks released classified materials on a dirty operation by American soldiers in Iraq that got out of hand, killing several civilians and Iraqi journalists. Assange’s arrest marks the end of a story that had its roots in online media activism. He had unscrupulously woven a web of alliances and relationships with both mainstream media and authoritarian political leaders hostile to the free flow of information (in particular, Vladimir Putin), in the process bringing unutterable secrets into public view.
For many years, his organization, WikiLeaks, has been synonymous with a form of digital activism marching under the banner of transparency, elevated by its radical opposition against military and industrial secrecy and the manipulation of reality by the media. In his guerrilla missions into enemy territory, both online and offline, Assange became allied with many strange bedfellows, from the more politicized and radical hackers (Anonymous) to radical film directors (Ken Loach) and top investigative journalists (Glenn Greenwald), all the way to US military whistleblowers (Chelsea Manning), and creating the conditions for people like Edward Snowden to make the decision to expose the misdeeds of the US National Security Agency (NSA).
His reckless personal conduct, along with the rape allegation in Sweden, have made him the object of criticism, even by those fighting on the same side. He concentrated the leadership of WikiLeaks in his own person, not hesitating to expel those who questioned his decisions, and showing signs of self-centeredness and disregard towards the needs of his organization. His choices resulted in a drop in support for WikiLeaks, which then led him to make other decisions with very little transparency, such as when he agreed to work for a Russian television paid by Putin. Or, indeed, when he contacted people connected to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign for the US presidential elections, hinting that he would be able to provide emails and documents that would make Hillary Clinton look bad.
At every step, Assange has tried to justify his actions as a means to fight the ongoing campaign waged against him by the US secret services—a claim that became more and more implausible with time. In the end, he found himself alone and with no allies left. We can only hope that he will be able to avoid extradition to the US, where he is accused of engaging in conspiracy to undermine national security, an accusation that will certainly result in jail time, with a high likelihood that his captors will lock him up and throw away the key. Such an outcome must be fought against, because WikiLeaks’ work was valuable.
As the Internet was becoming the universal medium it is today, Assange recognized its true potential for counterinformation. After diligent efforts to verify the information, he published vast collections of documents whose authenticity has never been refuted, without putting anyone’s life in danger. For instance, these have included documents and emails from oil companies in which one could read about the corruption of African politicians (for instance, in Kenya or Nigeria); or documents in which British managers of financial firms with offices in Asia talked frankly about their speculative activities, which likely impoverished whole regions of the planet to enrich the 1 percent of the global elite.
But WikiLeaks’ number one nemesis has been the Pentagon, as it has published revealing materials about misdeeds during the war in Iraq, or the global war against Islamic terrorism, in which the US military has certainly not distinguished itself for its respect for civilian life. At the same time, Assange did not hesitate to knock on the doors of mainstream newsrooms, proposing collaborations with the goal of publishing the documents made available on the WikiLeaks website in regular news outlets.
In all this, Assange has been flexible, pragmatic, and little prone to partisan behavior. He justly deserves praise for that, along with the fact that he has lifted the reputation of the hacker profession from merely seeking personal enrichment to taking up the noble banner of defending the free flow of information, thus bringing legitimacy to the actions of Anonymous. The global success of the movie V for Vendetta notwithstanding, the Guy Fawkes mask would not have been adopted as the iconic symbol of social movements if WikiLeaks hadn’t decided to support and promote—even if for a short time—the slogan of Anonymous: “We are legion.”
Julian Assange has certainly come a very long way from his roots as a young Australian activist, under the banner of cypherpunk, pushing agitprop in favor of Web anonymity and against the excessive power of governments and businesses. At the turn of the millennium, he had just arrived at the social forum in Porto Alegre, where he was distributing materials about his fledgling organization from behind a makeshift desk. Later, he had to hide for seven years in the embassy of Ecuador—a country whose new president once claimed he was a populist, leftist and anti-imperialist, but later became a neoliberal populist and friend of the US. Assange had to spend many years alone, without access to WikiLeaks funds. However, throughout all this, what changed the most was the Web itself.
Now, the mantle of radical transparency has been perversely taken up by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, while Whatsapp, in the name of privacy, uses encryption to prevent messages from being read, thus promising anonymity. In short, the same giant corporations that Assange always fought against are running the show. It is an irony of history that his arrest was live streamed, in keeping with the principle of radical transparency that the Internet guarantees to everyone—whether they are radical activists, or unscrupulous sellers of social connection in the form of advertising space.