Reflecting on Julian Assange: Internet activism and the fight for transparency

I first became aware of Julian Assange in the book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier by Suelette Dreyfus 1997. I heard a reading of the book in an Internet Café on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Assange was the character Mendax in the book, although it was not widely known then that this was Assange. This early encounter with Assange’s story sparked my interest in the intersection of technology, politics, and activism.

Underground (1997)

In the following years, I didn’t hear much about Assange until 2006, when he founded WikiLeaks. Our paths never crossed in Melbourne despite my involvement in various “Internet activism” activities over the preceding decade. I focused more on teaching and the media and communication side than hacking and journalism. The emergence of WikiLeaks whilst I was teaching marked a significant moment in the history of the Internet and its potential for political and social change.

In 2007, I moved to the UK to work at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. During this time, I followed WikiLeaks intently in the media. Its leaks highlighted the power of new technologies to disseminate information and hold powerful entities accountable.

In 2010, just as I was leaving London, WikiLeaks released the “Collateral Murder” video. This video, which showed a U.S. military helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed several people, including two Reuters journalists, was a stark reminder of the brutal realities of war and the importance of transparency.

The release of this video was a pivotal moment for WikiLeaks and the broader movement for government accountability. The video showed the helicopter crew firing on a group of men, including two Reuters journalists, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, who were killed in the attack. The video also showed the crew firing on a van that arrived to help the wounded, killing several more people and injuring two children. The release of this video brought international attention to the actions of the U.S. military in Iraq. It raised important questions about the conduct of the war and the treatment of civilians.

On June 19, 2012, Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London, seeking asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denied. Assange feared that extradition to Sweden would lead to his eventual extradition to the United States, where he faced charges related to the publication of classified documents. His asylum in the embassy marked the beginning of a prolonged period of confinement and legal battles.

Later that year, I attended a screening of the telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story at Cinema Nova in Carlton, Melbourne. At this event, I first met John Shipton, Julian’s father. The screening was followed by a meet-the-filmmaker session and beers, where I could talk to many actors and crew. This personal connection to Assange’s story deepened my understanding of the human side of his struggle.

In late 2012, I became involved in the Assange for Senate campaign for the September 2013 election. The WikiLeaks Party, which met at Kindness House in Fitzroy, planned the campaign there. Greg Barnes was the campaign manager, and John Shipton was the party’s secretary. I witnessed Julian beam into forums at the old Fitzroy Town Hall, demonstrating his continued commitment to political activism despite his confinement.

The Wikileaks Party meeting in Fitzroy for the Senate Campaign (2013)

The Assange for Senate campaign was a critical moment in Australian politics. The campaign focused on transparency, government accountability, and the protection of whistleblowers. Although the party won no seats, the campaign brought significant attention to these issues and highlighted the importance of political activism in the digital age.

In 2015, I embarked on an epic motorcycle ride through South America for a year. Upon my return, I started working at a university in Melbourne, where I taught ethics. I often showed the “Collateral Murder” video to students when discussing whistleblowing. Whistleblowing is crucial in organisations as it protects them and society from harm caused by unethical activities. It ensures that wrongdoings are brought to light and addressed, fostering a culture of accountability and integrity.

Throughout these years, I remained friends with John Shipton. Our legendary conversations over beers and pasta at Mario’s on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, were filled with discussions about justice, human rights, and the ongoing efforts to secure Julian’s freedom. John’s character, humanism, impeccable manners, intelligence, and unwavering energy were inspiring. He never flinched from his purpose to get his son out of prison and uphold justice.

John Shipton (Julian’s father) at The Night Falls Conference, March 9, 2024 RMIT

Accordingly, the book The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer profoundly influenced me. It is a well-argued, articulate, and convincing book that reminded me that the cause was clear: Julian Assange was a political football who had done nothing wrong and had been denied the rule of law. The book reinforced my belief in defending press freedom, the right to information and fair trials.

Recently, I also attended the Night Falls Conference, which was attended by several influential figures. The conference attendees expressed fresh hope that Julian would be released soon. In the words of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, “it had gone on long enough.

Yesterday, Julian was released. John Shipton jumped in a car with a friend to drive to Canberra to meet his son. This moment culminated years of struggle, advocacy, and unwavering support from Julian’s family and supporters from all walks of life.

John Shipton, with a friend driving to Canberra from Melbourne to meet his son (26 June 2024)

Reflecting on Julian Assange’s journey, I am struck by the tenacity of his family and supporters. What Julian did was the right thing to do. He is a great Australian and, ironically, perhaps the most excellent defender of the US First Amendment ever. His actions have made democracy more vibrant and less passive and compliant. When used for the public good, new technologies can disseminate ideas, promote the freedom of the press, and hold those in power accountable.

John meeting his son Julain in Canberra on 27 June, 2024

Julian Assange’s journey from a young hacker in Melbourne to the founder of WikiLeaks and a global symbol of transparency and accountability is remarkable. His work has exposed the inner workings of governments, revealed abuses of power, and sparked essential debates about the role of the press and the public’s right to know. Despite the legal battles and personal setbacks, Assange’s commitment to these principles has never wavered.

People worldwide, including his family, friends, and countless activists, have unwaveringly supported Julian Assange. This support has been crucial in keeping his case in the public eye and advocating for his release. His supporters’ dedication and perseverance testify to the importance of standing up for what is right despite significant challenges.

In conclusion, Julian Assange’s story powerfully reminds us of the importance of transparency, accountability, and the freedom of the press. His work has significantly impacted the world, and his release is a moment of hope for all those who believe in these principles. As we navigate the complexities of the digital age, we must remain committed to these values and fight for a more just and transparent world. We need people like Julian more than ever as we enter a new era of AI.



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