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THE GOOD FIGHT

The wiki whistler

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Julian Assange, the world's most famous refugee, is the hacker of Big Brother's nightmares.

Freedom fighter or terrorist? The victim of a concerted smear campaign trying to escape the world's most powerful government, or a deluded megalomaniac trying to escape prison for sexual assault offences?

By realising the full potential of the internet to reveal the inner workings of government, Julian Assange, the 41-year-old Australian founder of Wikileaks, has become one of the most controversial figures in world politics, and its most famous refugee.

For over a year, he has been trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy near Sloane Square in London. Day and night, British Metropolitan Police surround the building and right up the steps to the entrance - an operation that had already cost £3 million by February, according to the BBC.

Technically, he is wanted for extradition to Sweden, where he faces trial for allegedly forcing two women to have unprotected sex. But he fears this will end with another extradition to the United States, where he could face espionage charges.

His real crime in the eyes of the US government is to have presented information that Washington would prefer had remained under wraps. By publishing hundreds of thousands of secret internal memos from US officials, military logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, and prisoner files from Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Wikileaks has revealed a multitude of wrong-doing, including thousands of cases of torture and abuse against detainees during the Iraq war and a secret tally of dead Iraqi civilians (66, 081).

They also showed that the State Department backed corporate opposition to a Haitian minimum wage law;that the FBI trained Egyptian torturers;and that the government covered up its secret drone bombing campaign in Yemen, among other revelations.

In an interview with Rolling Stone last year, Assange outlined the philosophy that drives his activism: "All human systems require authority, but authority must be granted as a result of the informed consent of the governed. Presently, the consent, if there is any, is not informed, and therefore it's not legitimate.

"To communicate knowledge, we must protect people's privacy - and so I have been, for 20 years, developing systems and policy and ideals to protect people's rights to communicate. "
Far more than a simple whistleblower, Assange's significance stems from his technical skills. He is a highly skilled cryptographer, a master of unlocking digital firewalls and building highly complex defences around his site that make it practically impervious to government attacks.

Assange has had plenty of preparation for life as an international fugitive. His early teens were spent on the run with his mother from an abusive step-father. Even before the noose tightened around him after the US memos were published, Assange lived a nomadic life, jumping from one country to the next, sleeping on the sofas of supporters, forever hunched over his laptop (" I spent two months in one room in Paris once without leaving, " he told the New Yorker in 2010).

Born in 1971, in Townsville on Australia's northeastern coast, Assange got his first modem at 16 and disappeared into the nascent sub-culture of hackers and computer geeks, eventually landing in a Melbourne court at the age of 20 after hacking his way into a Canadian telecom company. He escaped with only a small fine after the judge argued that he had done so purely out of "intellectual inquisitiveness".
The real honing of his activist skills came shortly after from a bitter custody battle over the son he fathered as a teen, leading him into an all-out campaign designed to expose the failings of Australia's family services.

Although many politicians in Washington have tried to label him an anti-American terrorist (former Alaska governor Sarah Palin once called for him to be hunted down in the same way as Osama bin Laden), Assange initially intended Wikileaks to focus on "those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia. " The site's first leak was a report alleging that Kenya's then president Daniel arap Moi had siphoned billions of dollars out of the country. But the great limitation of Wikileaks is that it is only as good as the leaks it is offered, and the bulk of them have focused on the actions of the US, making an enemy out of the most powerful government in the world.

Assange has also been pretty good at making enemies in his personal life. He fell out spectacularly with The Guardian and New York Times, with whom Wikileaks initially worked on the release of US memos and Iraq logs. The disagreement stemmed from a fundamentally different vision of journalism in the internet age. Assange preferred to dump everything into the public domain, while his mainstream partners continued to worry about interpreting the documents first - and jealously guarding the information from their competitors.

Many former Wikileaks employees have also chafed under his leadership. One told the NYT that he displayed "erratic and imperious behaviour, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood. "

Assange himself points out the absurdity of the criticism. "The character assassinations are dangerous, but taken as a whole, they're absurdly comical. I'm accused of everything from being a cat torturer to being a rapist to being overly concerned about my hair to being too rich to being so poor that my socks are dirty. "

The key point may end up being that Wikileaks has not proved as dangerous as many US politicians claimed. As with Snowden today, the constant refrain from Washington when the US memos were published in 2010 was that they would put lives in danger. Three years on, there is no evidence that this was the case.

DISSIDENTS' GALLERY


MAHATMA GANDHI

In 1893, he refused to vacate his seat in a first-class compartment of a train in South Africa. He was thrown out by a White man at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station. It was the moment of his political awakening. Everything - Satyagraha, civil disobedience, freedom - sprang from that moment.

ROSA PARKS


In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to obey the bus driver's order that she give up her seat in the coloured section to a white passenger, because the white section was full. The first lady of the civil rights movement was born.

DANIEL ELLSBERG


In 1971 Ellsberg, a military analyst, released the Pentagon Papers, a topsecret Pentagon study of US government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers. He says Snowden has made the right decision and that his disclosure is "as important as any disclosure that's ever been made".

ANDREI SAKHAROV


The Soviet nuclear scientist was the brain behind his country's thermonuclear power programme but had a change of heart when he realised the apocalyptic destruction the nuclear bomb was capable of. He campaigned for a ban on nuclear weapons and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Putin compared Snowden to him, albeit "on a different scale".

ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN


Despite having spent eight years in a Siberian labour camp, the Russian writer went ahead and published 'The Gulag Archipelago', his detailed account of the inhuman brutality of Stalin's death camps. He was arrested by the KGB and deported. Solzhenitsyn's writing was the first and most fatal blow to Communism.

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