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US championed Internet freedom now they fear it

Updated: 2010-12-13 11:28

By Han Dongping (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange have been in the world media spotlight for the last few weeks. With Julian Assange now in British custody, the world has responded to his arrest in various ways.

When Wikileaks released the so called US secret documents, some US Congressional leaders labeled Julian Assange as an information terrorist. The US Attorney General Eric Holder promised the US public that it would seek ways to prosecute Julian Assange through legal means. Despite Mr. Holder’s assurances to the American people that the US government had not pressured private companies to stop working with the WikiLeaks website, many people believe that the US was doing everything it could to shut down the Wikileaks cooperation, including pressuring companies such as Paypal to no longer allow donations to Wikileaks through its services. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, who fought so strongly for internet freedom a few months ago when Google quarreled with China, has also condemned Wikileaks’ irresponsible release of US secret documents, stating that they may undermine US national security. The champion of information freedom had suddenly become concerned about the dangers of such freedom. The US Government has even placed a ban on federal employees from reading these released documents.

On the other hand, Russian Prime Minister Putin strongly defended Julian Assange and Wikileaks’ release of these documents, accusing the British Government’s arrest of Julian Assange as undemocratic. He used the Russian adverb: Caldron laughs at kettle’s darkness, similar to Chinese adverb wu shi bu xiao bai bu (the person who fled 50 yards laughed at people who fled one hundred), suggesting that the US was doing the same things even though it frequently accusing other nations of restricting access to information. Brazilian President Lula also expressed his support for Julian Assange and Wikileaks, condemning the arrest of Julian Assange by the British authorities as an attack on freedom of expression. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed her concern over reports of pressure exerted on private companies including banks, credit card companies and internet service providers to close down credit lines for donations to WikiLeaks, seeing such pressure as an assault on information freedom.

Hundreds of demonstrators in Australia condemned the Australian government’s characterization of Julian Assange’s release of sensitive US diplomatic cables as illegal, and demanded the Australian Government stand up behind Julian Assange.

The Iranian Government responded to the Wikileaks release of these so called secret American diplomatic cables as an American conspiracy to undermine Iran’s relationship with its neighbors. I can understand why the Iranian Government reacted in such a manner, but it is hard for me to believe that the US government was behind the release of such sensitive information. Some of these documents do promote American diplomatic interests in the world, as would be expected because they were American documents, but some other documents clearly contained embarrassing information that the US Government would not want to be released. I do not think that the American Government would willingly share the candid terms that they used behind other people’s backs.

What we can learn from this Wikileaks affair is that our world is a very divided place, a place with many different cultures, different histories, and different governments. What is a right for people in one country is a crime in another country. The US government strongly defended the internet freedoms of its companies like Google. But when it came to Wikileaks’ release of its own sensitive information, its behavior became entirely different. As I have always argued, the US Government is after all no different from other nations in the world. The difference is a matter of degree rather a difference in nature.

I have looked at some of the documents that Wikileaks released. There were no surprises for me. These so called secret diplomatic cables seemed to be nothing more than diplomatic gossip among lower ranking embassy employees reporting their hearsay to their superiors in order to show that they were being productive. In some cases, they are more like wishful thinking on the part of US embassy officials than realistic situation of the country’s position they are stationed.

There is no doubt that the release of these sensitive documents represents an embarrassment for Hillary Clinton personally as the Secretary of State, but ultimately, they contain very little information that will truly be damaging to the US. Instead they provide the people of the world with an opportunity to see the United States in its true colors. It is not surprising that the US State Department orders the gathering of personal information on foreign diplomats and UN officials. It is probably a common practice among most other countries in the world as well. It will only be a surprise to those who are ignorant about their government and politics and those who have been doing these things while accusing others for doing exactly what they are doing.

The author is Professor of History and Political Science at Warren Wilson College, NC.


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