The fact that governments and citizens were so shocked by the WikiLeaks revelations demonstrates that the impact of digitization is still being underestimated. ‘If you’re shocked by WikiLeaks, you must have been woolgathering since the internet appeared. The lessons we can and should learn from this case could have been learnt long ago’, states IT lawyer Dr Kees de Vey Mestdagh of the University of Groningen. Increasing digitization is forcing governments to act in more subtle ways. And it’s high time that ordinary people woke up to the digital world, is the opinion of the Groningen lawyer.
For weeks governments have been searching for ways and means to muzzle digital rebel Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks cohorts. According to Kees de Vey Mestdagh the battle is pointless. ‘There’s more than enough attention being paid to the presumed dangers of the leaked messages for American state security, among other things. Completely uninteresting as far as I’m concerned because the documents aren’t producing any truly new insights. What is essential is to analyse the underlying developments. States and citizens are being challenged to find new answers to the question of how they can protect fundamental values such as freedom and security.’
According to De Vey Mestdagh, the fact that states and citizens are reacting in such a shocked way to WikiLeaks is evidence that they don’t actually understand what’s going on. ‘In the animal world this is known as displacement activity, a term invented by Niko Tinbergen. When a bird doesn’t know whether to attack or flee, it starts cleaning its feathers. People scratch their heads when they are confused. That’s the type of behaviour we’re seeing with the reactions to WikiLeaks.’ Governments are still wavering between regulation and privatization – trying to confine digital developments within certain parameters, or leaving them completely to their own devices. That uncertainty is proof that there’s never been a thorough analysis, according to De Vey Mestdagh.
‘People who want to fight WikiLeaks don’t understand anything about the internet’, according to De Vey Mestdagh. The whistleblower site is no more and no less than a symptom of ever more powerful globalization and increasing digitization, states the Groningen lawyer. The world is becoming more horizontal, the importance of the state is decreasing, citizens are becoming more vocal and are no longer automatically accepting authority. The role played by the internet is huge: the more that digitization progresses and the stronger the mutual networks of citizens become, the more transparent governments must be. De Vey Mestdagh: ‘Whoever makes a claim to authority now has to really prove that he has earned it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Democracy can only benefit from openness.’
States that profile themselves as the only guardians of their citizens’ rights have got a bit too big for their boots, thinks De Vey Mestdagh. ‘The state is no longer able to guarantee my privacy, can’t protect copyrights any more and can neither protect nor control the freedom of speech. These are lessons that we should have learned long ago and that the WikiLeaks case just underlines.’ States should operate in a transparent way and recognize their limitations, according to the Groningen lawyer. If they don’t, they will only lose more authority. ‘It’s a question of adapt or perish.’
In the meantime, citizens are going to have to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the state themselves, according to De Vey Mestdagh. ‘They must invest more time in anonymization and encryption and thus protect their freedoms themselves more. The state can play a role in this development by stimulating education, information, research and infrastructural facilities. That is the positive approach to the issue that is heard much too infrequently. Globalization and digitization offer citizens the opportunity to really become mature and independent and to accept responsibility for their own actions.’
Dr Kees de Vey Mestdagh lectures in Law and IT at the University of Groningen and is the founder and head of the Law and IT department at the University of Groningen. This department offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes on the interface between technology and law that are unique in the Netherlands. De Vey Mestdagh publishes in the field of IT-related legal issues, internet governance and the normative applications of IT. He studied law and psychology at the University of Groningen and was awarded a PhD in IT for Law by the same institution. He was voted lecturer of the year in 2009 by the Groningen Law Faculty.
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