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Caught in Their Web

We might not like Mark Zuckerberg or Julian Assange—but we’re going to have to learn to live in the world they’re making.


Illustration by Andy Friedman  

This is a column about a pair of Internet entrepreneurs, the start-ups that they founded, and the tremendous worldwide convulsions they unleashed in 2010. Like many high-tech mavens, the two men in question have many qualities in common. Both are coding gurus of the highest order, brilliant but socially maladroit, elusive and reclusive. Both are at once mono- and (at least somewhat) megalomaniacal. By the time you read this, either one may well have been chosen as Time’s Person of the Year; both are on the magazine’s short list. Yet for all their similarities, there are striking differences, too. The other day, one of them—the 26-year-old American whose company has made him a billionaire—pledged to give the majority of his wealth to charity. Two days earlier, the other—the 39-year-old Australian whose firm has made him an enemy of the state—was thrown in jail.

In case you’ve been on an extended holiday on Pluto, I’m talking here about Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, the creators of Facebook and WikiLeaks, respectively. Even more than their founders, the organizations are alike in important ways: Both are platforms on which great masses of previously private data are made public; they are archetypal institutions of, and catalysts behind, the age of oversharing. As such, Facebook, WikiLeaks, and the guys who fomented them have provoked deeply polarized and at times hysterical reactions. In certain quarters, Zuckerberg is hailed as a social-media hero, and millions of people regard Facebook as an extraordinary tool for connection and community. Assange, likewise, has ardent fans who see him as a liberator of information and WikiLeaks as a shredder of the veil of secrecy that governments use to shroud their serial mendacities. But both have also been subject to fierce and virulent criticism: Zuckerberg and Facebook for sacrificing the privacy of users on the altar of commercial gain; Assange and WikiLeaks for undermining the foundation of diplomacy and putting lives at risk in the process.

These reactions are understandable and, in some cases, warranted. But they are largely beside the point. In a digitized and networked world, Zuckerberg, Assange, and their outfits are merely avatars of the inexorable march toward a radically greater degree of transparency in our personal, cultural, and political spheres. The question about the new transparency isn’t how to thwart it—because we can’t. The question is how we live with it.

Let’s start with Assange. Though WikiLeaks was launched in 2006, it wasn’t until this year that it appeared on the radar screens of most Americans, when Assange uncorked a trio of caches: in July, roughly 77,000 classified Pentagon documents concerning the war in Afghanistan; in October, nearly 400,000 more related to the Iraq War; and, finally, starting in late November, more than a quarter of a million State Department cables (half of which WikiLeaks claims are unclassified).

The backlash to this latest development has been furious, from politicos calling (literally) for Assange’s head to businesses such as Amazon, MasterCard, and PayPal cutting off WikiLeaks’s services and funding (under no small political pressure). The counterbacklash has been equally furious—Internet activists staging retaliatory electronic attacks against those companies, crashing their servers, as well as those of Sarah Palin and the Swedish government, which is trying to extradite Assange for questioning about sexual offenses—and, indeed, has elevated the whole affair to a world-historical event: the first global cyberwar.

There’s certainly plenty of reason to view Assange with substantial wariness. In an essay he wrote in late 2006, he proffered a view of the modern state as an “authoritarian conspiracy” and came off sounding like something very close to an anarchist. His release of the so-called Afghan War Logs exposed the names and locations of civilian informants who were cooperating with NATO forces, effectively a ready-made Taliban hit list.

But Assange has (so far) handled the release of the State Department’s cables in a very different way. Contrary to countless claims by politicians and the media, Wiki–Leaks has not indiscriminately published all 251,287 documents. Far from it: At this writing, the total stands at 1,269. Of those, the vast majority have been vetted, redacted, and published first by one of five respected newspapers: the Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País, and Der Spiegel. And yet no one—except Joe Lieberman—is suggesting that the Times may be guilty of a crime, and no one—not even Lieberman—is calling Arthur Sulzberger or Bill Keller a terrorist, as many pols, including Mitch McConnell, have called Assange. Most legal experts believe that the WikiLeaks founder has broken no laws. And nothing like a genuine consensus exists that the disclosure of the cables has caused real harm to American statecraft. “Is this embarrassing? Yes,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates (no softy, he). “Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.’’


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