Censorship and Assange
On the January 10 podcast, I voiced a fairly strong editorial on the twin topics of Julian Assange and censorship. My overall point was that while we often benefit from the release of classified information via WikiLeaks and Anonymous, we still cannot condone the concept of "ethical hacking." The problem is that some secrets should remain secrets. I brought up the idea that the revelation of some secrets could create enormous damage, such as the release of aircraft IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) codes that could enable terrorists to fly into our airspace undetected. There are countless other examples of such dangers associated with the indiscriminate release of information. So my question is: Who's watching the watchers? In other words, who's in control of WikiLeaks to make sure that sensitive information is withheld? I doubt any such policy is in place.
Indeed, WikiLeaks, along with actors such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, has taken it upon themselves to decide what gets released and what doesn't, based on some moral and ethical playbook that I fear is forged with a sense of righteousness. And the problem with righteousness - whether on the left or the right side of the political spectrum - is that it lacks judgment. The concept of judgment is essential in any stable government, and the appreciation of judgment can only come about when righteousness is dropped. Unfortunately, it often takes time to consider all the facts and sufficiently weigh the evidence to render wise judgment. Stable governments and societies in general recognize this fact and intentionally move slowly when it comes to making judgments. This slowness helps prevent the back-and-forth whiplash as the whims of society careen from left to right. Indeed, according to Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard political scientist and author of How Democracies Die, conservatism acts as a stabilizing factor that brings democratic nations into a future without the drama.
As a side-note, I ask you to not confuse today's Republican party with conservatism. That mantle was dropped in the wake of the party's "Southern Strategy" under Nixon and its subsequent embrace of religious radicalism under the Reagan. Prior to that, the traditional Republican party, as true conservatives, brought about many progressive systemic changes including the end of slavery, women's suffrage, unions and fair labor laws, to name a few. The Republican party of today is an example of a radicalized far-right political element, and we are now witnessing, in real-time, how such radicalized systems eventually implode.
Back to Assange and censorship, I do make one final point in the podcast: Julian Assange is not a journalist. While it's true that WikiLeaks has garnered journalism awards for its release of classified information that ultimately did some good, it has never been true that the ends justify the means. Were we to provide journalistic cover for Assange, I fear we would traverse down a slippery slope, where, at the bottom, we grant any illegal search protection under the first amendment. This essentially makes hacking legal, so long as its ostensible end is for the common good. And who gets to decide that common good? If there are no judges involved, righteousness takes over, and we ultimately forfeit our fourth amendment rights to privacy. Every person's life will become an open book.
The text of the January 10 podcast is below.
Today we have no guests, so this will be a fairly short podcast. We did have a Republican State Representative lined up, but things got a little busy during the week. The state legislators started their annual session at precisely the time that the insurrection took place in Washington DC. Though most of the focus was on the capitol building in DC all day, there was significant activity taking place at state capitols all across the country as well. There were lots of folks upset about Donald Trump not getting a second term, and they voiced their discontent at state capitols, resulting in security issues just when legislation sessions were starting. So, our guest understandably was unavailable for recording this podcast.
That’s not to say that I don’t have anything to talk about today. I could go on and on about the shitshow that took place in DC, but really, there are lots of other people far more qualified than me to talk about that.
Instead, I’ll focus on a Twitter conversation I got involved in over the past week. I approached this conversation from a fairly conservative perspective, as conservatism runs through my veins. Now please don’t conflate conservatism with the Republican Party. The association between Republicans and conservatives began to dissolve decades ago, and now the Republicans are - at least from a fiscal standpoint - far less conservative than the Democrats. It’s strange, I know. It took me some time to get used to this. But I have to be honest with you, my vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984 was the last time I voted for a Republican president. And I haven’t always voted for Democratic presidents since then either. I wouldn’t say I’m somewhere in between the two parties, because I don’t think there is a middle ground; rather, I share this airspace with a sizable and growing minority of Americans somewhere off the duopolistic political grid altogether.
Anyway, the discussion on Twitter concerned information in general. But it manifested into separate arguments regarding censorship and Julian Assange. Now you might be going, whhhaatt? How are they related?
First, let me say that the Twitter discussion never ended. Well, there’s one individual who ended his end of the discussion by removing me from seeing his tweets. I suppose I must have gotten him angry, and he chose to close the door on me. Oh well, there are about 330 million monthly users showing up on Twitter; I guess I’ll just move on to the next one.
Anyway, political discussions never seem to end on Twitter, especially when you’re limited to making your point 280 characters at a time. This is really frustrating because 280 characters is simply not enough space to fully describe your position on a topic. It leaves a lot of issues only half-stated. This is exacerbated when someone gets only a portion of your argument and then responds to those portions before understanding the entire scope of your message. Further intensifying the problem is that I personally find that people on social media seem to violate just about every argumentative fallacy ever discovered.
The straw man argument is probably the most often used; the straw man argument takes place when someone says something that draws a quick agreement and then hijacks that sense of agreement to support a completely unrelated point. For example, one of the folks I talked with on Twitter said, “How is Assange, a journalist locked up in an embassy for the past 8 years, somehow a threat to you over the CIA that recently tried a Bolivian coup and overthrew Libya under Obama?” You see the straw man here? Of course I strongly believe that the CIA should NOT be allowed to overthrow foreign governments. I suspect that’s something that draws a quick agreement from virtually everyone. Yet, just because I agree with that premise, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel threatened by Assange’s activities. (And I’ll explain shortly why I feel threatened.) They’re two separate arguments. Yet the way the argument conflates these two concepts, I apparently have no choice but to agree that Assange is not a threat. The straw man argument is used to back you into a corner where you feel you must agree with the argument lest you be accused of disagreeing with a completely different premise argument.
The false dichotomy argument is used a lot as well. The false dichotomy attempts to frame the world as a series of binary choices. In the run-up to the Iraq war for example, George W Bush proclaimed to the world that you’re either with us or against us. In other words, there was no room for nuance. There’s no room for offering a different solution. Nevermind the fact that Iraq was not involved in the 911 attacks. You’re either a friend or you are our enemy.
There are lots of other argumentative fallacies, but I thought I’d point out one more that’s been getting a lot of use lately, both on Twitter as well as the mainstream media. That’s the whataboutism argument. Like the straw man, it attempts to bring in completely unrelated information and hijack the argument, rather than deal with the discussion at hand. In the case of Julian Assange, apparently when he was hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to avoid prosecution, the CIA spied on him illegally. My central argument in this discussion was that Assange did indeed compromise security and should face the consequences. A counter argument stated that the CIA illegally spied on him. To which I could only shrug my shoulders and say something to the effect of “So what?” I mean, it’s definitely a problem if the CIA spied on him illegally, and I agree they shouldn’t have been spying on him. But that has nothing to do with Assange’s illegal activities. One does not diminish the other. They’re both wrong. There’s no point in associating the two other than to say that by comparison, one is much worse than the other. Okay. But that doesn’t diminish either one of them in any way.
Anyway, back to my point regarding Julian Assange, I sort of entered into the middle of a conversation where the treatment of Julian Assange was being discussed as if it’s an insult to democracy. I merely pointed out that Assange is a hacker, and he broke into government facilities, stole information and sent it out to the rest of the world.
Now the real situation is a bit more nuanced, of course. I’m not sure if Assange himself literally broke in. His Wikileaks website openly solicits for information obtained through break-ins to government facilities. To me, it’s the same thing; whether Assange wrote the code or cracked the passwords himself is immaterial. Soliciting a crime is the same thing as committing the crime, insofar as the law is concerned.
It turns out that much of the information uncovered in this process was very harmful to our government. It embarrassed a lot of government officials and alerted our allies to the fact that they were being spied upon. It also alerted citizens as to the extent that we ourselves are being observed. Indeed, this was ultimately a good thing, because it helped to curb nefarious activities.
But the ends do not justify the means. You cannot commit a crime, even if the end result ends up being good. It’s still a crime. Because if you re-frame this crime as ultimately being good, then who’s to say that the next break in has the same end? Who’s to say that someone won’t break into people’s personal records and reveal information that may be personally embarrassing or perhaps compromise personal security?
And regarding our government spying on its citizens; folks, it’s called the Patriot Act. I personally railed against this act with every fiber of my being. It allows the government to listen in on your conversation when speaking to anyone outside the country. It allows for a secret court - the FISA court - to issue warrants without any transparency. It allows for so-called “black bag” searches of property, where your personal property can be searched without you being notified.
Also, for the record, I was against the invasion of Iraq. During the runup to this invasion, I was living in Southern California and I joined an activist group that spent every Sunday afternoon holding up signs and marching in Thousand Oaks California and Santa Barbara. As a group, we were yelled at, threatened, spit upon and tolerated other demeaning acts. Yet we persevered and continued to march and protest. When the invasion of Iraq started, I stopped protesting, realizing that further protests were futile. When this legal black hole prison was set up in Guantanamo, I railed against it as well. I suspected at the time, and was later confirmed, that torture was being used. It probably continues to this day. A lot of this dirt belongs to George W Bush and his cronies. I personally consider them international criminals. But I also put Obama and Trump in the same category for being complicit in these crimes against humanity as well as many other crimes, the latest being the state-sanctioned assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
What I’m trying to say is that I am on the side of keeping a watchful eye on our government, and getting confirmation on its illegal and nefarious activities is vitally important. A critical part of sustaining our democracy compels us to closely monitor our government. To hold individuals responsible for their crimes against this nation as well as crimes against humanity. We cannot sleep so easily at night when living in fear as to whether we will be “disappeared” into some black hole, or have our property illegally searched and seized. A democracy cannot sustain itself under these pressures.
But by the same token, I don’t believe in allowing private citizens to employ the same techniques of spying either. I don’t believe people should be allowed to break into computer systems - whether they exist in government offices or private companies or the PC sitting on my desktop.
Julian Assange is part of this process. There are others in on this effort as well. Perhaps the most popular is a group that calls itself “Anonymous.” They take it upon themselves to break into computer systems for the supposed good of humanity. They have their own definition of the “Patriot Act” I suppose.
If anyone listening to this podcast is a member of Anonymous or knows someone who can speak for that group, I would love to talk to you on the podcast. I need to find out what criteria Anonymous uses when targeting a system for a break-in. Do they have their own FISA court that debates the value of the break-in? Are they transparent about their decisions? Do they redact specific information to protect the innocent? Do they evaluate the tranches of information before turning it over to Wikileaks, just to make sure they don’t release something that can do some real harm. I am highly doubtful.
You see, years ago, I used to have a secret clearance. The only secret material I ever had access to was IFF codes. Identify Friend or Foe. It’s the codes that airplanes use when painted by a radar. When hit with a radar signal, the IFF system sends back a digital code that identifies whether the plane is friend or foe. In the wrong hands, these codes could allow terrorists to fly an airplane into US airspace and cloak itself to look like a friend and thereby get past our airspace security. And then they can crash it into a building. So I have to ask, if Wikileaks comes across IFF codes, will they shotgun it out to their website and put us all at risk? Again, I doubt they look at the material that closely, though I’m willing to talk to a representative of that group and confirm.
So my problem with Julian Assange boils down to my own security. Is he handling the material responsibly? Although I’m willing to be enlightened in this area, I personally doubt it. In fact, I must doubt it, because when it comes to my security and the security of my nation, I must err on the side of caution. I don’t want to have to go to bed at night wondering whether some jackass is going to do another 911 on us because some other jackass decided to publish IFF codes. Well, I suppose if the IFF codes get published, our government would be alerted and then change them. But hey, who’s in control at Anonymous? How can I be sure they aren’t going to pass along these IFF codes to potential enemies without publishing them on the web? Am I supposed to trust that they won’t? Am I supposed to trust someone who hacks into a computer system for the good of humanity and not for personal gain? I don’t know, because I don’t know who I’m dealing with. There’s no transparency. They’re anonymous.
Getting back to Julian Assange, people try to make him out to be a journalist. They point to various journalist awards that have been granted to Wikileaks. They point to the fact that the mainstream newspapers pick up on a lot of this information and publish it, and therefore Julian Assange is a journalist. And because he’s a journalist, he gets first amendment protections.
I don’t agree. My problem is that any hacker can claim the mantle of journalism and escape prosecution. So where does that leave the rest of us? If someone hacks into a bank account to reveal Donald Trump’s personal finances, we may be tempted to look upon that as a good thing. But I urge you to avoid that temptation. Yes, I’d love to evaluate Trump’s personal finances to see whether he might have been financially compromised and therefore may not be making all his decisions in the best interest of the United States.
But who’s to say that someone who breaks into Trump’s bank account won’t steal something for himself? Who’s to say that that person is completely on the up-and-up? Who’s to say that he won’t just as easily break into someone else’s account and wipe out 401k accounts for a thousand people?
There are reasons we have laws against breaking into computer systems. Sure, you can call it “ethical hacking” when someone does it for the good of humanity, but to me, the words “ethical” and “hacking” are an oxymoron. There is no such thing, because there is no set of rules in this environment that speaks to ethical behavior. And even if there were rules, there’s nobody to enforce these rules. It’s the wild west. There is no court to issue warrants. There is no council of citizens watching for the better good of the nation. There’s just a hacker, sitting at his or her desk, pounding out passwords gained through nefarious means, to access information that he or she has no capacity to fully understand. Like IFF codes. I can just see a hacker saying, “IFF? What’s that? Ah, just publish it.”
So calling Assange a journalist takes us down a dangerous path. Because here’s the thing; there are no barriers of entry into journalism. There is no equivalent of a bar exam before you can call yourself a journalist. There is no degree in journalism required. There is no license required to be a journalist. If you write a blog, you can legally call yourself a journalist. If you publish secret information you obtained while hacking, you can call yourself a journalist. But it doesn't mean that you’re not a hacker. You can be both, I suppose, but in my view, you’re a hacker. You’re gaining information through illegal means and indiscriminately publishing it. And you run the risk of really hurting people.
One final note regarding Assange and journalism; There are ways of gaining information without hacking. Shoe leather is the most popular way. I’m a big fan of people like Anne Nelson. We were privileged to have her on the podcast some weeks back. She wrote a thoroughly researched book called “Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.” But that’s just her most recent work. She’s been a classic journalist for many years. She spent time in Central America investigating the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala, putting herself at great personal risk to get information first-hand. She spent time in the Philippines as well. On the ground. Obtaining information the only way to honestly do it: through first-hand experience. I also happen to know another journalist Michael Graham who, like Anne Nelson, was on the ground in Detroit during the riots of the 1960s. He was on the ground in Columbia researching the cocaine cartel, including Pablo Escobar. All this at great personal risk. These journalists didn’t hack. They did the hard work. And the quality of the stories they obtained was far more focused on the problem at-hand. And there are countless other investigative journalists that do that hard work and enlighten us with their findings. You just need to pick up a newspaper or a book to learn what they have to say. These real journalists don’t sit at a desk and break into government computer systems and then machine-gun it out to the Internet, and then hide behind the fourth estate to avoid the consequences. To say that Assange is a journalist is a complete insult to the people who actually do the hard work of journalism.
So as I said at the top of the podcast, I’d also like to comment on some online discussions regarding censorship. It’s well known by now that Donald Trump is banned for life from Twitter as well as several other social media accounts. And Parler, an alternative social media account known for publishing material from the far right, has had their app removed from the Apple and Android platforms. In all cases, the reason provided is that harmful, inaccurate and racist statements are being posted by individuals on these platforms. And probably the most significant reason is that many of the messages on these platforms incite violence.
I have to admit, my attitude on this decision is evolving. My initial reaction was, “So what?” Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all these other social media companies own the servers, they wrote the software and they maintain it 24/7. They ought to be able to decide who gets to use their platform and who doesn’t. End of story, right?
That was my thinking, anyway. But I’ve been conversing with people online that don’t share that view, and I have to admit, I’ve heard some compelling arguments.
Now to be clear, nobody I’ve talked with online agrees that a person should be able to incite violence using social media platforms or any other platform. And across the board, they’re all horrified at the insurrection that took place on January 6. And I don’t think it’s too big of a stretch to acknowledge that social media was used to help disseminate information and coordinate the insurrectionist activities. Not much of an argument there.
But the central argument really rests with the question of censorship. The social media companies own the platform, but do they own the messages? I believe they do not. And if -- and emphasize the word IF -- that is the case, then how can they justify banning people or censoring messages in any way?
I pretty much have to leave it hanging there, because I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t know if we should have a court make these decisions. I don’t know if the social media companies should dictate the Terms of Agreement, given that the messages are - as I believe - not their property.
Keep in mind that I’m glad Twitter banned Donald Trump, though I can’t completely justify it in my mind. And I think banning him for life is a bit harsh. I’m not sure that’s in the best interest of a thriving democracy. Because this can turn into a slippery slope. If we allow corporations to ban people or their messages, what does that say about our democracy?
Something to think about anyway. Like I said, my thoughts on this topic are evolving. If any of you listeners would like to air your opinion on the podcast, please drop us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am very, very interested in getting more opinions on this topic, and I’d love to have you talk on the podcast to tell all our listeners what you think.