Why Wikileaks is good for America

Wikileaks: Can't be erased

So what does it take to plug a leak so large that it threatens to undermine America’s national security interests, her soldiers and global standing? A leak so worrisome that Hillary Clinton described it as  “an attack on the international community and the alliances and partnerships, that safeguard global security.” The answer is: nothing. Nothing can and will stop Wikileaks. Under the pressure of the US government, the original Wikileaks website was taken down, only to be replaced by hundreds of identical mirrors all over the internet. Like a drop of food colouring in a clear glass of water, classified documents have spread so voraciously around the world wide web, that the only way to hinder their movement, is to shut down the internet completely. And even then, the entire cache of top secret information is being downloaded to personal hard-drives as we speak: regular people seizing the opportunity to become free-speech activists, and in doing so, take part in an unparalleled piece of history from behind their computer screens, one BitTorrent package at a time.

You can not shut down Wikileaks. Like the principles that built America into a beacon of freedom and liberty, Wikileaks is an idea that transcends mere politics or diplomatic niceties.  Wikileaks represents the frustration of the entire post 9/11 generation, that has slowly watched the West wither into a shell of its former self, pre-occupied with unpopular wars, financial crises and a clear process in which civil liberties are eclipsed by the expediency of governments. The Wikileaks movement represents a clear statement: We will not allow America to sink like the Titanic into despotic oblivion. The US government may be bounded by a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, but these are merely pieces of paper that are ascribed national importance. Government enforces these laws – and the Government has the power to annul them. What are laws but resounding statements etched into dusty tomes? Politicians allocate funding for Police, Education, Health and other public services – and these cogs are the only thing keeping our fragile society from descending into a Libertarian anarchy – devoid of the rule of Law.

What we see today, is a growing trend in which the necessary evil of basic government is further expanded, moneyed and made elaborate, way beyond the size necessary for its principle function: to keep order. In the same way that the absence of government leads to chaos and bloodshed, an all-powerful government is a monolithic bureaucracy that controls absolutely – a quasi North Korean oligarchy, spying on its citizens, and replacing due process with administrative convenience. To paraphrase former US president Gerald Ford, “A government big enough to give you freedom, is a government big enough to take your freedom away”.

And this is where Wikileaks comes in. Assisted by the world’s anonymous playground, the internet, Wikileaks is exposing US hegemony in a bid to prevent the monster that she may become. The US isn’t an echo of the crumbling Roman empire – the US is an injured superpower, abandoning good intentions in favour of political survival.

I grew up on a staple belief, that there exists a faraway democracy, America – a land that guarantees freedom of speech and religion – and vigorously upholds ethics and laws, as the epitome of safety, multiculturalism and achievement. This is what I still believe. This was the vision of America’s Founding Fathers. This was the America that landed a man on the moon, and that cultivated the bulk of the world’s Nobel Prize winners. America is simply too precious to dissolve itself silently into the night, and thus abrogate the golden age of Pax Americana that has provided a protective shield over the Western world. Today, more and more voters are becoming disenfranchised with the major political parties, and the political discourse is becoming increasingly polarized: Democrats and Republicans are shifting further away to opposite extremes, like two magnets repelling each other. A cursory read of the New York Times or the Huffington Post reveals that most Americans bewail the lack of cooperation in government, and it’s increasingly skewed outlook that stands at odds with that of the people’s. Coupled with the fear of homegrown terrorism, the fear-factor that seemingly drives politicians has led to the US Government imposing, for example, restrictive surveillance measures that curb the very tenet that America was founded upon: liberty.

US government: greater transparency required

The Wikileaks exposé is at least the first step in propagating a culture of transparency and accountability. If nobody holds a mirror up to the American government, then who will prevent its imperfections from developing into carcinogenic tumours? The release of 250000 classified documents, dubbed “Cablegate” was like a shock to the system. The video of an American Apache helicopter gunning down journalists in Iraq, sought to achieve a similar purpose: To portray the Iraq war as needlessly unjust and unnecessary, and in doing so, to prevent it from dragging on like its counterpart, the Afghanistan war. I believe that there are just wars, but public opinion has made it clear that these two aren’t one of them. Had Wikileaks released top-secret footage of the Dresden bombings during WWII there would be no outrage, no media explosion. Saving Europe from the evils of Nazism was inherently just and necessary and the bombings, even if questionable were justified and accepted. Today, many people struggle to list defendable reasons for occupying Iraq, or even invading Talibanistan with the purportedly nebulous mission of capturing Bin Laden and smoking him out of his Waziristan cave-compound. Ten years on from 9/11, these wars are increasingly seen as the hand of American imperialism, attempting to gain a foothold in the Middle East: Veni, Vidi, Vici.

Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange

Whilst Assange may be driven by a desire to expose alleged American malfeasance, I see the leaks in a different light. I doubt that the US has committed crimes any more heinous than those committed by the Communist regime in Beijing and those committed on a daily basis in The Congo and Darfur. Yes, focusing solely on America may seam gratuitous, or even an exercise in Chomsky-style America bashing. But I don’t see it that way. I see it as constructive criticism: a chance for the people to look at themselves through the window of 250000 classified documents, and to ask: “Where are we going?” and “What do we want our future to be?” Wikileaks and the Internet are now the upholders of worldwide freedom of speech, until the West can retake the reigns. The leaks must force the US to reevaluate her position, and to return to the trail that she set out on in 1776. In every respect the United States is a success. But perhaps now, more than ever, the message of America’s founders should be resounded loud and clear in the public domain, and on computer screens everywhere. History may judge the past couple of US administrations unfavourably, but that does not mean that America is doomed to a downward spiral of debt and iron-gripped bureaucratic control.  The wikileaks were a victory for freedom of speech, and they should be hailed as such by those concerned for America. Now everything said behind closed doors has been released into the public domain, and voters should choose their candidates more cautiously – those who foster political unity, call for less concentrated power in the hands of government, and greater transparency regarding policies.

"Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" - Patrick Henry, 1775

I await Wikileaks China, and damning information about other countries that may lead to political reform. But today it is 1983 on the streets of New York, LA and Washington, and George Orwell is giving you the chance to prevent his novel from becoming reality. America pumps more money into the failed wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, borrows larger sovereign funds from China, and increases taxes. Political positions become more extreme, fear and distrust increase, and neighbours become enemies. This is not America – this is dystopia. The massive Wikileaks dump have given the country and indeed the entire Western World, a fresh opportunity to alter course before it’s too late. I believe that the world’s moral compass still lies in America’s hands – and the magnetized North pointer is pointing directly in Wikileaks’ direction.

Illegal downloads – free music with a guilty conscience

Everyone I know does it. Most of my friends nonchalantly boast about it. My iTunes library is littered with it. My external hard drive is infested with an obscene amount of it – ready to put any muso to shame. This is the reality of acquiring music or videos online today. Illegally downloading copyrighted material, is as easy googling a title with the words “free download” as an addendum. Websites such as Isohunt, Limewire, The Pirate Bay, voxy, youtube – are just the tip of the media-industry nightmare, costing artists and record companies billions of dollars, whilst delivering everything on demand to bedrooms and living rooms everywhere – for free. From personal experience, the temptation to download a song or movie without paying for it is huge. After all, why should you need to whip out your parent’s credit card if there is simply no need. It doesn’t feel illegal. You can’t touch it, like a thief can touch a stolen wallet. You don’t have to hide it, like a robber would hide stolen jewelery. It only takes a couple of minutes to sink yourself into the amoral vortex of copyright infringement, yet you will almost never get caught – because it is so prevalent, anonymous and unregulated. No substantial legislation exists in Australia to punish illegal downloading – so you essentially have every piece of music ever recorded at your disposal, like a kid in a candy store.

Which begs the question: Is it correct to download music illegally? The answer is unequivocally: no. There is nothing correct about stealing profit from someone who has worked long and hard on composing, writing and creating a piece of art. However, because the lines between piracy and legitimate file-sharing are so blurred, there are those who justify illegal downloading of intellectual property through a loophole. For example, if I purchase a CD from the store, and my friend borrows the CD to listen for his enjoyment – is this an illegal act? no. Is it considered file-sharing? no. Now consider that my friend goes home and copies the contents of the CD to his computer. Is this considered file-sharing? Yes. Is it illegal? Yes and no. Ripping a CD for personal use is not considered illegal – so long as one does not distribute the contents globally via a file sharing program. As Mark Harris notes on his mp3 blog:

For those of us who just want to convert our original CDs to digital music files for use in MP3 players etc., the good news is that the RIAA still don’t have a problem with this as long as you don’t use file sharing programs. It’s also OK to burn a copy onto CDR as long as it’s from an original you own.

However, my friend technically commits an illegal act

Borrowing an original CD off someone to make a copy for yourself or others is illegal.

Now this is American copyright law, but the Australian record industry faces a similar uphill battle. The following statement released by the Australian Recording Industry Association reads:

“Unauthorised uploading or copying is not free at all—it is the musicians and the people who invest in the music who are paying the price. The artists, first and foremost, the labels that have invested in them, the publishers who manage the copyright of their songs and the thousands of people involved in the many different areas of the music industry are all affected. Downloading and burning without permission doesn’t fairly reward the efforts of those who create, develop and record music, and who depend on it for their livelihood.”

Clearly this issue isn’t simply about rich, hedonistic artists or decadent record companies. It’s about smaller, less well known artists: local bands, undergrounds bands and indie producers. These are the people that really lose out when you decide to download their music. The only positive aspect about distributing their music illegally is that it increases their exposure and popularity – leading to higher attendances at live shows. I remember once watching a TV documentary, in which a struggling artist noted that he only makes money from live shows, and that his entire fan base downloads his music illegally. This is the sad reality of music today.

There have been a select few cases where offenders have been caught, but these are just a drop in the ocean of copyright infringements. Fancy a song? How about this one for $675,000. . . .

Boston PhD student, Joel Tenenbaum, who was found guilty of illegally downloading music in August 2009, is to challenge his $675,000 fine. The announcement which was made via his blog, details the new motion.

As time progresses, and legislation is put forward to prevent file-sharing,  reasonable punitive measures will be meted out to offenders. The upcoming lawsuits demanding half-a-million-dollars are merely attention-grabbing feats of desperation by record companies, seeking to make an example of the unlucky few who are caught. Outrageous, preposterous, unlucky. You can only sympathize and hope that you’re not the next chicken who doesn’t make it across road.

Every time you download a torrent file, your ISP keeps a log of your ip address which can be used to reveal your identity. Most offenders who are caught, readily agree to pay the $3000 fine to record companies. Nobody in their right mind would challenge the record companies with the blatant evidence of guilt stacked against them. Only those  with the foolhardy fortitude of nothing to lose, would take on a media conglomerate (Warning: Do not try this at home, in the workplace, at an internet cafe or in your dreams). Anyone who wishes to do the same should note that his/her shy smirk will wipe away once he/she realizes that notoriety can’t keep one warm at night – even when challenging a row of the record company’s overpaid, celebrity lawyers.

A federal jury in Duluth, Minn., on Thursday ordered a Minneapolis woman to pay $220,000 to six music companies for illegally downloading and sharing copyrighted music over a peer-to-peer network.The 12-person jury said Jammie Thomas must pay $9,250 for each of the 24 songs that were the focus of the case. In their complaint, the six music companies that sued her had claimed that Thomas had illegally shared a total of 1,702 songs over the Kazaa file-sharing network, but they chose to focus on a representative list of 24 songs.

Thus it’s quite clear that the chances of getting caught  are rather unlikely, but if you do get caught, be prepared to weather a music-mortgage of Goliath proportions. But all of this still raises more questions than it answers for those who wish to remain dutiful, law-abiding citizens: What if my friend were to borrow my mp3 to listen to my music. Is this illegal? What if I were to use legally purchased music in a school video or a home-made movie. Is this illegal? What if my friend borrows my music in a non-digital format for a year, such as a tape or record. Is this illegal? What if I were to record a TV show with copyrighted music playing in the credits – and then I were to replay the recording at a family gathering. Is this illegal? If the answer to all of the above is yes – then unless you’re living naked in the middle of a forest eating gum-nuts – you too are guilty copyright infringement.

So if it’s illegal, and I know it’s wrong and morally incorrect, why do I keep doing it? The answer is not peer-pressure – and whilst I realize that there is no justification, but here’s a little insight into my train of thought: I hear it on the radio. The song. My pupils dilate, saliva builds up under my tongue and my ears vibrate to the heavenly rhythms of the tune that will continue ringing in my ears for hours. I hurriedly find a computer to make a Google search, piecing together half-remembered lyrics so that I can find its name, and satisfy my musical cravings.  And there it is – freely available at my disposal on youtube, the repeat button wearing down with a cacophony of obsessive-compulsive mouse clicks – listening through it again, again and again. At this point, I have the potential to:

1) Bookmark the music video, and return to the youtube link (which is available to listen for free), so that I can continue listening to it every day

2) Download the music illegally on Limewire in a couple of minutes to my iTunes library, so that I can continue listening to it every day

3) Purchase the music legally on iTunes for $2.79, so that I can continue listening to it every day.

4) Ask a friend to put the music on a USB, so that I can add it to my my iTunes library, and continue listening to it every day

5) Use one of the numerous ‘online video downloaders’ and simply download the music track from the youtube video, so that I can continue listening to it every day.

Almost everyone I know, bar a couple of exceptions will have no hesitations of selecting option 2, 4 or 5. This is the contemporary reality of acquiring music, videos and e-books online. Only one person I know risks actually paying for their music, and she is guilty nonetheless of other, far more heinous infringements such as borrowing CDs and recording movies. Which leads to a further question: Why should I stop downloading music if it’s free, easy and (subjectively at least) it doesn’t hurt anybody? And the only acceptable answer is the moral one. Until people become too afraid to download due to widespread punitive measures taken by record companies, there will simply be no practical reason to stop. If you empathize with the artists, if you want to support them and to see them continue with their work, then you will pay them for it. Of course, one could argue: why do Jay-Z and Taylor Swift need my money to add another Lexus to the 7 car garage? Well they probably don’t – but if everyone were to download illegally, even the biggest artists would feel the financial strain.

Yes, nobody is stopping you from adding another single to your dirty music library, but every time you listen to your favourite tracks, the artists can only hope that your guilty conscience will come back to haunt you.

Facebook culture: a substitute for actually experiencing life?

“Ye, don’t worry mate. I’ll Facebook you tonight”

This has become my regular parting, a sort of “see ya later, mate” if you will – with the obvious intonation to further contact at the end. If this is any indication of Facebook’s popularity and growing influence on youth everywhere, then one could conclude that Facebook is taking over our lives. Well, sort of.

I often wonder what happens when a sub-culture like Facebook becomes so ubiquitous, so widespread, that the term “to Facebook” becomes a commonly used verb. The premise of social networking is that each profile is customized to reflect a person’s character, personality and interests. A snapshot in time of your life – photos of yesterday’s graduation, yearnings for the future, your relationship status and emotional state. However I witness of growing trend of “Facebookerization” whereby social networking becomes the primary pursuit in socialising – rather than simply a mere documentation of what we do in ‘real life’. Take for example the growing phenomenon of “Facebook addiction“, whereby people spend hours glazing through profiles, pictures and  news feeds – searching aimlessly through groups to call their own, and of course, the dreaded ‘apps’ and mini-games such as Farmville, that desensitize their helpless victims glued to the screen and keep them in a trance for hours. This is where using Facebook crosses the line from  a useful networking tool to a brain deadening waste of time.

Personally I try to limit my Facebook usage to essential contact. Talking with relatives overseas. Organizing a movie with friends. Occasionally announcing an important milestone in my life. But these days, it’s simply not enough. If you don’t have a solid Facebook presence, then you are disconnected from the world and your social milieu. Not appearing in enough pictures means that you don’t get out much. Unless you compulsively leave mindless wall posts on friends walls, you don’t really care about them. Showing affection equals taking an interest on Facebook – and posting prudently to boot. How ironic then, that less than ten years ago, spending time on the computer and internet was the epitome of antisocial behaviour. Today, if you don’t have a web presence, you will be judged – and you probably won’t even know about it.

Mind numbing posts - recording the mundane and the banal

Yesterday, I needed to contact a friend about selling my school books. Instinctively, I logged on to Facebook to send him a message. I couldn’t find him in my “friends list”, so I initiated a general search – and lo and behold, he didn’t appear in the results. I was dumbfounded. Everyone has Facebook. How could he so rudely exempt himself from the unspoken obligation of social networking? And then it hit me – he is the lucky one. He doesn’t have to deal with annoying status updates which mean nothing (driving 2 da Shops@!, OMG killer partay, *insert-random-quote-that-you-found-smart-so-that-other-people-will-think-that-you-are-profound*). He doesn’t have to squirm at pictures of drunken photos that show up in the news feed. And most of all, he doesn’t have to justify his online presence in a cynical culture of conformity that constantly demands you to reveal more and more of yourself – a culture in which nothing in secret, and nothing is sacred: a peer-pressure mentality that requires your identity and Facebook page coalesce into one. This is no more evident than at every gathering, where a couple of people with digital cameras circle around like hyenas, coaxing you into poses, staging photos, documenting the party on Facebook (and increasing their Album collection from 101 to 102) as evidence that you ‘get out sometime’ – and by extent, that you are popular or “socially adept”.

According to an article in SMH:

An Australian study shows how Facebook and other forms of online social networking are now “ingrained” and how, for many, their friendships have come to depend on it.

Clearly, this growing trend carries wider ramifications for wider society and teens’ social development. 20 years ago, to find out about somebody, you would actually have to have a real conversation with them. Today, contact is limited to unadorned words typed onto a message. The entire process of interaction disappears. You cannot judge emotion or feeling this way (and emoctions are certainly no substitute). You can’t see, or smell or touch the person whom you are talking to. All you are doing is exchanging pleasantries through an Ethernet cable. At least with a phone, you are able to hear a voice – one of the five senses that forms a connection – if a tenuous one at best. With Facebook and social networking in general – actual contact is a bare minimum. You don’t know whether you’re talking to a 17 year old friend-of-a-friend, or an unemployed tradesman in Azerbaijan. This is worrying – and this is where our basic function as humans, to socialise – loses it’s meaning, ironically, on a website designed for that very purpose.

A typical profile

I have a confession to make. I like Facebook. There is something appealing about “stalking” your friends. Seeing what their hobbies are. Whether you share similar musical tastes. When to remember to buy them a birthday present. When to congratulate them on the promotion/graduation/new job. There is something quite useful about talking to friends on the other side of the world, with whom you would normally have no contact. There is something fun and naughty about seeing what your friends get up to these days. But when harmless Facebook surfing in small quantities becomes a substitute for real social interaction or dare I say – life itself, that’s when it is no longer a Social Network, but a dehumanizing substitute for real life.

Why I began this blog

Why begin a blog? Why throw myself to the hungry masses of armchair generals and internet commentators? Why endure the afflictions of the Web 2.0 experience in a much more personal form?

I guess that I am intrigued by the idea of sharing my thoughts with the entire world. The sense of anonymity is enigmatic, empowering. Previous generations endured the messy pen and the diary – a keepsake stored away in the attic – only to be discovered years later, by close relatives, covered in dust and buckling under the process of deterioration and time. Everything written online is permanent and instantly available. Nothing is sacred. Everything can and will be read and criticized and scoffed at and loved and bookmarked. Like scattering the feathers of a pillow in the wind, each word becomes indelibly stained on the global network, never to be returned to it’s owner – a memento vicariously indulged by young and old, tech savvy and tech challenged alike.

Never before have we been so connected in history. The fact that you are reading this now from anywhere in the world is testament to that. By starting this blog, I throw myself into the sea of blogs, videos, memes, comments, forums and life that has characterized the evolution of the internet.

Do I lose my anonymity in the process? Possibly. But perhaps under the watchful gaze of the 24/7 media, identity cannot be concealed in any practical manner. It waits within, lurking for 15 minutes of fame, or a lifetime of notoriety. And so it is with me. A personal memento of my inner thoughts and observations transmitted through ethernet cables across inviolable borders to you, now. Perhaps we will never meet in real life. But as of now, the bonds of curiousity have been forged, and our paths meet – if only for a moment – before we throw ourselves back into the shapeless, faceless sea of the internet.