People all over the world are worried about whether Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is a legitimate journalist or the Information Unabomber. If they really want something to worry about, they should come to Dallas and talk to Russell Fish.
Fish, an Information Age Attila of open records, would be the first to tell us all to stop worrying about Assange, even if his massive dumps of classified information on the Internet are shaking up banks and governments worldwide.
Assange is only the needle. Look at the haystack.
Fish, a computer inventor and entrepreneur, also happens to be a kind of cutting-edge Robin Hood in the field of public information in the digital era. In the 1990s his early sieges against barricaded vaults of government information in Texas helped turn the public education establishment on its ear.
But to understand Fish on the subject of Assange, a better context might be the Inclosure Riots in mid-16th century England, when the Levellers were running around the English countryside chopping down hedges to defy the institution of private property.
Fish says Assange and WikiLeaks are merely symptomatic of an enormously bigger and deeper phenomenon born of digitization itself. All significant digital information must and will be leaked ultimately, Fish believes, because ultimately there is no effective technological, legal or social means of stopping it from leaking.
He should know. He is a master maker of leaks—an un-plumber, if you will. He believes that once everything leaks out all over the place and the walls of privileged information collapse—an inevitability whose moment speeds ever closer—then for the first time in human history we will all play on a truly flat field of information, for better or for worse. Better for really good players, I suppose. Not so sure about moi.
It's a stark and daunting perspective. No more informational hedges. All of us sort of naked out here. Cross our legs and learn to live with it.
Fish, who looks on government secret-keepers the way Attila the Hun looked on corpulent villagers, is ready. Cannot wait, as a matter of fact. He says Assange is helping the whole thing along, not creating it.
After WikiLeaks dumped a massive trove of diplomatic cables on the Internet last July, the government of the United States responded by convening a criminal grand jury to investigate Assange, leader of WikiLeaks, for offenses on a scale from spy to burglar. A host of multinational corporations including Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Amazon and Apple, Inc. rushed in close on the government's heels to help shut down WikiLeaks by starving it of financial and Internet services.
But like Salvinia Molesta, the invasive floating fern in Southern lakes that only gets bigger and stronger the more you chop on it, WikiLeaks thrives. After Bank of America joined the anti-WikiLeaks death squad, somebody inside the bank apparently dropped an entire hard drive belonging to a top Bank of America executive on WikiLeaks—enough dirt, Assange asserted last week, to force massive resignations from the bank.
As Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington once said, "That's the way baseball go."
Fish says the willingness of big America-based corporations to help the government beat up on WikiLeaks—and the eagerness of wonks, hackers and geeks all over the world to strike back—demonstrate the universality of the underlying issues.
Powerful entities will always close ranks not merely to defend their own secrets but to preserve the larger hegemony of secrecy itself. "That's the way business is done in Venezuela, Cuba and Russia," he says.
In those places and here, Fish believes the overarching social structure is the same: "If you look at it long enough, you see a division between the ruling class and the productive class."
Oh, the hell: Is he saying conditions in the United States mirror Cuba, where people are driving around in 1958 Oldsmobiles and eating house cats for dinner? Well, no. He's really only talking about information—more specifically the hierarchical structure of access to information, all over the world.
"The ruling class says, 'We have certain rights and privileges. We have access to information, which we use, and we get to tell you what to do. But we're not going to tell you the underlying information on which we make decisions, because you can't handle the truth.'"
So what happens when the truth spills out anyway? In Texas in the 1990s, Fish and his Merry Band of Rogue Engineers used Open Records laws to disgorge huge computer tapes from the clenched teeth of state and local public school officials.
Then-Governor Ann Richards, Mother Theresa of Texas liberals, was preaching the mantra of the education establishment—that you can't expect teachers to teach poor kids, because poor kids are poor. The way to help the poor things on their math quizzes is to end poverty first. And, uh, keep us posted on that.
But the data Fish and friends got their hands on showed a very different picture closely paralleling cutting-edge statistical research in Tennessee and also reinforcing the No-Child-Left-Behind philosophy of Richards' rival, George W. Bush. When Fish was able to get his hands on it and decode it, the data showed that schools could teach poor kids up to the same level as rich kids by the third grade, mainly by hiring and training the right teachers, while spending less money on administration.
State and local officials fought Fish's information demands on the grounds that they were protecting the privacy, security and welfare of the children. But his version of things is this: that when he finally got his hands on it, the information actually betrayed an effort by the educators to manipulate test scores, mainly by gaming the number and type of kids allowed to take the tests.
"We concluded that there had to have been collusion for this to have taken place on as broad a scale as it did," he says now, "because it took place in every district in the entire state."
And, as I say, that is Fish's version. I am confidant that people who were on the other side of those battles would offer a different construction. That's not the point here.
He believes that his version of the education battles in Texas in the '90s is the right one. Passionately believes. He also believes the Texas education saga demonstrates a kind of engineering problem in the structure of society.
"It's a question of asymmetrical information," he says.
Like water, too much information is elevated in secret reservoirs. Not enough flows down to the fields. But like water, information always must seek the sea.
"Ultimately I believe that information widely disseminated is beneficial to society. With asymmetry of information, you wind up with a secret order of people who get to see stuff."
An information aristocracy.
Is that true? The point is that Fish and a whole bunch of very smart and very independent-minded engineers all over the world believe it is true. They are the Levellers of the Information Age. In their view, asymmetry is a problem, an imbalance, a bowed arrow that must fly.
By the way, they also have the technological means to make it fly. And Fish believes—ardently believes—that the rest of us lack the ability to catch that arrow in the air.
For example: He says the first impulse of governments trying to keep information from their citizens is to apply pressure on the keepers of the half-dozen domain-name servers—the digital pumps that make information flow on the Internet—to remove the addresses of sites they find objectionable.
If your Internet ID is not on the domain-name server, the theory goes, then no one can find you. For all digital intents and purposes, you will no longer exist.
But Fish describes an army of geeks and hackers who are already devising ways to wire around the main domain-name servers. In fact, it is in the very nature of the Internet to wire around obstacles, he says, and the ability to do wire-arounds will always outpace the ability to create blocks.
"There is a saying that the Internet detects censorship as a failure and wires around it," he says.
I always love talking to Fish, because it's sort of like playing a computer game—something at which I am not otherwise adept. I asked him what the geeks and hackers would do if I devised an Internet "robot," a fiendishly clever program able to fly all over the Internet faster than spit, finding all their new wire-arounds installed to defy my blockades and then re-block them.
"The geeks will kill your robot," he said quietly.
KILL MY ROBOT?!!! How can they kill my robot?
"They can," he said quietly again.
And if they can't kill my robot, he said, they'll kill me.
Well, no, not me, myself and I, but my agency, my business, my website, my mainframe. How will they kill my mainframe?
"Denial of service attacks," he said. "In denial of service, the defense can never equal the offense."
That's what the geeks have already done to the businesses that have joined the anti-WikiLeaks death squads. They bombarded their sites with service requests from thousands of computers so the sites couldn't do business.
Fish is certainly correct in saying that the standoff between Assange and the U.S. government is historic and structural. If the Internet can't be shut up, and if every important secret is going to wind up on the Internet, then we are about to occupy a very changed planet.
In fact, I can only think of one area where I know he is wrong. He cannot kill my robot. Not MY little robot. With that single caveat, I have to agree with him on the rest. Julian Assange probably is the least of our worries.