Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks: A Conversation by Renata Avila, Sarah Harrison and Angela Richter.
The wonderfully alliterative name of this recently published book may be difficult to resist, but don’t let the title fool you. This slim volume has been written to further the fight on a number of epic fronts – gender, data privacy and disinformation. The battlefield is the digital world and its three writers are self-declared digital activists. What do such labels really mean you may wonder and where does Julian Assange fit in?
This book takes the form of a conversation between three dedicated female activists – British journalist and human rights advocate, Sarah Harrison, Renata Avila, a well-known Guatemalan human rights lawyer and digital rights expert and Angela Richter, a Croatian-German theatre director and author. I was party to a similar live conversation between these three women at a recently attended Border Sessions Tech Culture Festival here in the Hague. This is a wide ranging collaboration between Crossing Borders and a variety of local tech-focused initiatives including Impact City, Start-Up Factory and Hack the Planet among others. All three women have close connections with Wikileaks and all are highly sympathetic to the current situation of the organisation’s founder – Julian Assange. Described by him as a ‘a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents’ to which this multi-national media organisation ‘gives asylum’, Assange may well be describing his own situation in the Ecuardorian embassy in London. Founded in 2006, WikiLeaks has published more than 10 million documents and associated analyses including the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diary and of course the NSA scandal leaked by Edward Snowden.
Meeting the three authors in person, one is struck by how different they, both in terms of their professional and cultural backgrounds. However all are united by a clear passion for their work and indeed Renata, the feistiest of the three, summed this up well when she told the audience that she is ‘looking for new formulas for justice and new ways to empower the many’. Currently writing a new book on what she terms digital colonialism, Renata’s concern is with the political and economic power of the elite in the digital age. She believes that fear and poverty keep power in the hands of the few in the digital world too but that this is changing. Her insistence that debates about lack of digital privacy and the widespread manipulation of the masses by social media behemoths such as Facebook should be taken firmly out of the technology field and placed in the political arena, seem valid. However, her insistence that what she terms, Silicon Valley companies, have infiltrated all areas of Western life including academia in both Europe and America as well as the US government and Brussels to a lesser degree, border on the extreme.
Sarah Harrison, about whom something of the well-spoken public school girl still clings, agrees that a lot more needs to be done on the policy and advocacy level and believes that a greater focus on local communities and more awareness of one’s immediate surroundings is key to counter-acting the alienating individualism of our digital age. Perhaps her argument for less data collection in general was the most interesting as she pointed out that most data systems and apps are designed to collect as much information as possible rather than only that which is really necessary. Sarah now focuses on an organisation called Courage. It provides practical support for whistleblowers and was inspired by her work with Snowden – ‘we noticed that nobody seemed able or willing to help people in situations such as these’. Harrison’s affair with Assange has been blamed for her categorisation in the main stream press as a mere ‘assistant’ or ‘friend’ and the book, Women, Whistleblowers and WikiLeaks: A conversation was also written with the specific goal of highlighting and acknowledging the role played by women in what have traditionally been male dominated areas of tech and cybersecurity.
As Renata said, ‘One of the inspirations for this book was to dig into how these sorts of issues affect women’. She also described it as a first step toward developing what she terms a methodology which will encourage a more female focus on such topics. Certainly the collaborative, conversational approach of the book is in keeping with this. However, perhaps a little ironically, all three authors were highly protective of Julian Assange when asked about his current situation and future prospects. Harrison described his as ‘the most difficult case on the planet’ and admitted to seeing ‘no light at the end of the tunnel for him’ although she is thankful that he is still alive. While Renata’s response was characteristically direct, ‘At this point it is pure revenge’ – referring to the response of national governments such as Britain and the US. Angela expressed her on going fear and concern for Assange and the courage he has shown through 4 years of confinement and the 8 years since he has seen his children.
Angela’s work as a playwright perhaps provides the most unusual perspective on problems such as these. She told us that a year ago she approached a theatre in Hamburg about writing a play based on the Cambridge Analytica scandal but the proposition was met with ignorance and little interest. Describing herself as a pessimistic optimist, she is concerned about the rise of populism in Europe but agrees that the political left has not really proposed a convincing alternative. ‘Maybe things will have to get much worse before they get better’, she says. When asked about the effects of wikileaks on society at large, she admitted that the large quantities of information made available via the organisation are not always helpful simply because of the share volume. Nevertheless, in her own understated way she is just as radical as her co-author Renata. Her comment that ‘the Silicon Valley ideology is more dangerous than the ISIS ideology’ as it penetrates into our everyday lives in a very intimate way is evidence of this.
Although the passion and dedication of all three authors is evident, their reluctance to acknowledge the difficulties of deciding how much of the unedited data released by WikiLeaks will aid transparency and how much of it might undermine the privacy and safety of ordinary citizens detracts from their position. Described as the most controversial activist organisation of the 21st century, it seems to me that their case would have been better served by addressing some of these very real and complex issues. All three women agreed that the book does not offer solutions as such and indeed when asked by a member of the audience what an individual such as herself could do in the face of all of this, the authors admitted that it ‘wasn’t easy’ and no clear solutions were readily apparent to them either. Perhaps this could be the focus of their next book. Nevertheless, in terms of raising awareness, Women, Whistleblowers and WikiLeaks: A conversation clearly has a role to play and for those interested in buying the book, it is worth noting that all profits go to the Courage Foundation. Souwie Buis 16th June 2018
Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks: A Conversation is published in the USA by OR Books in paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-16-3 and is also available on Kindle