Julian Assange and the fight against digital capitalism

October 20, 2020
Image: Pixabay

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is facing potential extradition to the United States for exposing the US empire’s war crimes.

Assange faces charges under the US Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The warrant lists 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act on which he could be jailed for up to 175 years, and one count of conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to carry out her “Cablegate” leak. Now known as the “Public Library of US Diplomacy”, it is a collection of 3,326,538 US diplomatic cables from 274 consulates and embassies dating between 1966 and 2010. The cables greatly infuriated the plutocracy and its supporters.

Following the release of the first batch of US diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks and Assange were denounced as “terrorists” by politicians and pro-establishment commentators.

Republican Sarah Palin called Assange “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands”, urging his immediate incarceration by any means necessary. Fox News commentators called WikiLeaks a terrorist organisation, asking the US government to move against it.

In a 2010 interview with CBC, Canadian academic Tom Flanagan said: “I think Assange should be assassinated actually, I think Obama should put out a contract and use a drone or something … I wouldn’t be unhappy if Assange disappeared.”

In addition to the Cablegate leak, WikiLeaks released a trove of classified documents detailing atrocities by US and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq between July and October 2010.

Known as the “Afghan War Diary” (90,000 reports) and “Iraq War Logs” (400,000 reports), they are the largest leaks in US military history. They revealed the inconceivable brutality of imperialist wars waged by the US and its subservient partners, including the use of psychological warfare, rendition, torture and mass civilian deaths through targeted killings and air strikes.

In Afghanistan, the imperialist forces tried to conceal such murders by simply paying off the families of the victims to keep them quiet.

In Iraq, the number of civilian deaths was estimated at more than 100,000, many of them unreported or reclassified as “enemy casualties” to cover up the scale of the killings.

The most glaring example is the WikiLeaks-released video “Collateral Murder” — a classified recording of US Army Apache helicopters firing on unarmed civilians in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. More than 12 civilians were killed, including two Reuters reporters, and two children were injured. The victims of that senseless violence were all listed as “enemies killed in action”.

Assange: A threat to digital capitalism

Assange’s use of the internet to punch holes in the architecture of imperialism exposes one of the fundamental contradictions of digital capitalism: the antagonism between digital capital and the digital “commons”.

Whereas the capitalist class tries to consolidate the logic of capital accumulation through networked digital productive forces, alternative projects work simultaneously to re-appropriate the internet for the advancement of social goals.

While digital capitalism deepens exploitation, it also creates new foundations for autonomous realms that transcend the logic of capitalism. It creates the foundations for new relations of production that evolve within capitalism.

Assange tried to disrupt the normal workings of digital capitalism by eliminating one of the primary principles of contemporary times: zero privacy for the powerless and extreme secrecy for the powerful.

By severely rupturing the wall of secrecy built by powerful elites, Assange furthered a project comprising the digital commons, platform cooperatives, and a public-service internet that would coalesce into a powerful collective force for humanity.

This politico-economic project proved to be a big threat to the existing capitalist economy, which prioritises surveillance, capital accumulation and militarism.

For that reason, we need to look at the present-day accumulation regime, to understand why Assange is being so ruthlessly punished.

In today’s age of digital capitalism, corporations and states are collecting, storing and processing huge centralised databases of information about the world’s netizens. This enables them to gather traits about people (such as their religion, political affiliations and behavioural tendencies) that individuals do not intentionally disclose.

The data is then used to micro-manage and manipulate individuals and organisations in the interest of profit and capitalist power consolidation.

Data has increasingly become a central component for companies to remain competitive, and has become essential for economic processes — from controlling workers, outsourcing production processes, record-keeping, marketing and sales, to combat and repression.

Internet-based companies often make their revenue by serving up personalised advertisements; political consultants analyse data to decide who is predisposed to specific types of messaging and influence; predictive policing systems use data to create “heat lists” and “hot spots” that identify people and locations with a high probability of “disruptive activity”. Police units make use of social media as an important investigative tool to monitor potential suspects.

The huge digital industry – where companies called data brokers aggregate thousands of data points about each individual person, capture our personal information and classify us according to various metrics — is inevitably intrusive and uses surveillance tactics.

To derive profit from data, data miners make use of automated sorting mechanisms like artificial intelligence (AI), which analyses big datasets to predict outcomes.

When applied to humans, AI derives its predictive accuracy only from the vastness of data, since it does not have the ability to think. Considering that voluminous amounts of data are needed, mass surveillance is the only method through which such data accumulation of gargantuan proportions can be done.

The use of mass surveillance is exemplified by the US National Security Agency (NSA), an organisational leviathan with a budget of US$10.8 billion a year and more than 35,000 workers. It undertakes mass surveillance for the White House, Pentagon, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Departments of State, Energy, Homeland Security, Commerce, and the US Trade Representative.

The NSA’s intelligence programs include Social Network Analysis Collaboration Knowledge Services, which attempt to form sub-institutional components for surveillance operations: Dishfire collects and stores text messages; Tracfin records credit card transactions; Orlandocard installs spyware on personal devices.

One project – called Mainway - was collecting data in August 2011 from nearly 2 billion phone records a day. The 2013 NSA budget requested funds to increase its data collection capacities to record 20 billion events per day, and for a system that could integrate different data streams within an hour to create bulk data, then to share that data for more effective analysis.

As digital capitalism has progressed, profit-maximising capitalist firms have ratcheted up the speed of data accumulation, leading to “datafication”. Datafication is the continuous collection of data abstracted from the digital traces left behind as we interact with our digital environments, resulting in the proliferation of advanced tools for the integration, analysis, and visualisation of data patterns for purposes of commercialisation.

This process also implies that many parts of social existence take the form of digital traces. Friendships become “likes” on social media platforms, movements through different places generate extensive digital footprints in GPS-enabled devices and our searches for information show our predilections and personal preferences.

Digital capitalism is not only restricted to the profit imperatives of individual corporations, however. It is also thoroughly intertwined with militarism and repression.

In his book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, journalist Yasha Levine explains: “From Amazon to eBay to Facebook — most of the Internet companies we use every day have also grown into powerful corporations that track and profile their users while pursuing partnerships and business relationships with major US military and intelligence agencies.

“Some parts of these companies are so thoroughly intertwined with America’s security services, that it is hard to tell where they end and the US government begins.”

Google, he writes, has “supplied mapping technology used by the US Army in Iraq, hosted data for the CIA, indexed the NSA’s vast intelligence databases, built military robots, co-launched a spy satellite with the Pentagon, and leased its cloud computing platform to help police departments predict crime”.

Amazon finalised a US$600 million deal for Amazon Web Services (AWS) in October 2013, to build a private computing cloud for the 17 US intelligence agencies known collectively as the Intelligence Community (IC). Through the contract, known as the Commercial Cloud Service or C2S cloud, the company started storing internet and telecommunications data accumulated by the IC.

Speedily and steadily, the use of data for repressive purposes has diversified to incorporate different spheres in its area of operation.

In February last year, the United Nations World Food Programme signed a $45 million partnership with Palantir Technologies, the US software firm known for its association with the CIA and Cambridge Analytica and its work on predictive policing, biometrics and immigration enforcement.

This was not new. Since 2010, major tech companies like Accenture, Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft have developed partnerships with the UN and other humanitarian or inter-governmental agencies to: extract data about refugees; conduct discriminatory bio-metric experimentations; and de-politicise humanitarian crises, through a techno-colonial mindset.

Defending Assange

The attempts by the US to extradite Assange are manifestations of the global elite’s anxiety to somehow contain the project of constructing a digital commons and building a radical digital economy.

Digital capitalism has manufactured a framework where global surveillance and data-driven imperialist militarism have combined to suffocate popular resistance to a dysfunctional neoliberal system.

Instead of this oppressive transnational structure of unending misery, Assange imagined a future where digital technologies would be used for collective projects of humanisation and anti-imperialist resistance. He tried to erect democratic communicative commons aimed at opposing the colonisation of societies by a commercial logic that solely wants to profit from surveillance and militarism.

Now, he is being brutally punished by the US – the hub of the grotesque system we live under. We need to vehemently defend Assange from capitalist-imperialist forces, which are only concerned with the perpetuation of endless suffering for the mass of humanity.

[Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at yanisiqbal@gmail.com.]

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