The "Collateral" Suffering of Julian Assange

Technology & Society Nov 07, 2020

Ganesh Katrapati

Picture this - two war helicopters in the air, see some civilians on the ground. Immediately, they start shooting at them even though the civilians were just walking around. They have neither time nor space to escape. Throughout this non-stop firing, we hear the soldiers foully abusing their victims. Bone chillingly, we hear them saying 'keep shooting', 'keep shooting', 'keep shooting'. This horrific incident happened during the Iraq war where More than a dozen people were killed, two children wounded. Among those were two journalists who were completely unarmed - their cameras were mistaken for arms. Now, this is what they call a 'collateral' murder - just a nice way of masking the fact that unarmed civilians were killed in a military encounter.

All of this was kept secret. Chelsea Manning, a US soldier at that time, saw this video and many other relevant documents, felt responsible, and sent it Wikileaks - a platform dedicated to bring out the truth about war crimes, spying, corruption and other injustices, increasing transparency so that, we are all aware of them.

Putting out the truth about incidents like this and others is the sole reason why Julian Assange - the founder of Wikileaks is in jail today, in the cruelest and harshest environment. Initially, Julian was charged for a trumped-up case with no evidence (this was eventually dropped). Since 2012, he took asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy (UK) without access sunlight or fresh air - he could not step out of the building because then the UK govt would arrest him. This is exactly what happened as soon as the asylum period ended. He has since been dragged into a maximum-security prison with inhumane conditions - denied basic necessities and put in solitary confinement leading to acute deterioration of his mental and physical health. The US desperately wants assange to be extradited (transferred) from the UK to America where he will possibly spend his whole lifetime in jail. Even at the court trail, he is kept in a glass box and not permitted to talk to his lawyers.

What crime did Julian Assange commit ?. He did not kill anybody. He did not rob, steal or swindle. He did something far more dangerous. He exposed the criminal secrecy of the corrupt and the powerful. He laid bare the workings of the evil empires. That is why he was brutally dragged out of the embassy by the police. That is why he is put in a prison reserved for criminals who are "highly dangerous and threat to national security". That is why, he is put in a glass box during the trial. They are doing this because they are afraid of Julian Assange, Wikileaks and us knowing the truth.

Governments, armies and corporates persecute whistleblowers for exposing information that should not be kept secret but, they have no problem in extracting our data, commodifying it and spying on us. There is a meme that contrasts Assange and Zuckerberg that gives you an apt snapshot of what I just said.

Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter & Reliance - These digital monopolies constantly gather our data behind our back, enable mass govt surveillance, sell, share this data to whomever they want and worse, they microtarget each and every single one of us to study our online behaviour, predict it and even modify it !. All the information we access passes through atleast one of these companies - They are gateways to our internet. Whatever news we see, fake or otherwise, has to come from them. Which ever product you buy has to be bought on their platforms. Our thoughts, opinions, actions all, are not just monitored but, at times decided by them - From buying a T-Shirt to voting in an election (Cambridge Analytica). This is the totalitarianism Julian was talking about and, he was right. But, of course, you don't see Pichai or Zuckerberg in belmarsh prison or in glass cases !

It is right that we talk about Julian Assange, his work and the Internet's infection of digital monopolies on Aaron Swartz's birthday. Like Julian, Aaron dedicated his life to the principle of equal and open access to public information. He is involved in creating the RSS feed format, Reddit, Creative Commons and many others. He thought scientific research should be freely accessed without any restrictions. Being a exemplary technical genius, he found a way to do it. Instead of celebrating his initiative, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison. At the age of 26, he took his own life.

The murder of all those innocent civilians, the suffering and indictment of Julian Assange and the death of Aaron - None of them are 'collateral'. Something is only collateral if it is incidental (by chance). In these three cases, it is clear everything is intentional.

Ganesh is a Free Software Activist, Executive Committee member of Swecha and is currently pursuing his PhD (Computational Linguistics) at IIITH. He is interested in data, AI/ML and the interplay between technology and society.