Power corrupts, warns Julian Assange

2014-05-21 14:23
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a window of Ecuadorian Embassy in central London. (Sang Tan, AP)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a window of Ecuadorian Embassy in central London. (Sang Tan, AP)

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Cape Town - The centralisation of power represents a major threat to democratic institutions, says Julian Assange, the publisher of whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

"We can see on the one hand a tendency toward totalising and centralisation that is represented by what is happening at the National Security Agency and by organisations - whether they like it or not, and sometimes it appears they do - that have to feed in to the National Security Agency such as Google," said Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

He was speaking at the Net Prophet event in Cape Town that seeks to "inspire creativity and the flow of ideas among entrepreneurs and stakeholders who operate in the internet-tech space in Africa and South Africa".

As the publisher of WikiLeaks, he is wanted by the US FBI on charges related to the release of confidential documents on the war in Iraq.

"That centralisation of information and centralisation of power is a pretty concerning thing," said Assange.

Sensitive communications

He compared the flow of information on the internet to roads in ancient times.

"We look back to historical analogues such as the Roman roads. When you connect together different parts of the world and different parts of the economy, what happens? Well, it means that power can flow across the connections.

"We can become sucked up into whatever the dominant power centre is," Assange added.

Through WikiLeaks, Assange is alleged to have released sensitive communications between diplomats that caused the US embarrassment.

The release of sensitive electronic messages caused spy agencies to investigate WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

The revelations caught established mainstream media houses off guard and raised the profile of WikiLeaks.

"On the other hand, when you look at other phenomena, such as the invention of the AK-47 or the printing press: These are technologies that enable dispersal, so they decentralise power," Assange told attendees of the event via internet video stream.

Assange, who has been holed up the Ecuadorian embassy for two years to avoid extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault said that it was not yet clear whether the decentralisation push for free flow of information would succeed.

"What we're seeing at the moment is the battle between these two aspects of computerisation and communication... it's still not clear what will dominate."

War justification

He said that the US war in Iraq was a betrayal of trust.

In the justification for its war, the US said that Iraq leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and linked his directly to the terror attack on American soil in 2001.

Despite mass protests and condemnation, the US launched what it called a pre-emptive strike.

No WMDs were ever found and it is estimated that around 6 500 US troops were killed in a decade of combat. The cost of the war is estimated at $6 trillion.

"Democracy is not alive in war - we can go back to Vietnam; we can even go back to World War II and look at the various stages of how that came to be. You have to lie to various people to go to war," said Assange.

This sentiment is echoed in the documentary Hubris - Selling the Iraq War which showed that a number of the intelligence sources in advocating for the war was fraudulent.

Members of 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division sit in the belly of a C-17 aircraft at Sather Air Base in Baghdad as they begin their journey home after a year in Iraq. (Maya Alleruzzo, AP, file)

In particular, Assange said that his organisation came under scrutiny from US intelligence after the publication of the diplomatic cables.

"It wasn't really until our publications of 2010, 2011 when we used diplomatic cables that the push against us managed to unite not just disparate elements of US national power, but rather combined elements," he said.

He said that the fact that WikiLeaks survived at all under government pressure is a credit to the durability of the publication's vision.

"If we look at it in reflection, we've done pretty well."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    julian assange  |  internet  |  online privacy

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