Who is Julian Assange?

While Wikileaks’ Julian Assange is much in the news, there’s been very little written about the individual and the forces that likely played a role in shaping him. Certainly he’s bright enough and claims to embrace some new form of Internet-enabled informational freedom. But I’d argue one need look no further than American post-sixties culture to realize that freedom without responsibility can produce anarchy, or worse. Far from some master of the informational universe, in some ways, Assange looks weak and dependent upon others to sustain and guide him through the real world.

In private, however, Assange is often bemused and energetic. He can concentrate intensely, in binges, but he is also the kind of person who will forget to reserve a plane ticket, or reserve a plane ticket and forget to pay for it, or pay for the ticket and forget to go to the airport. People around him seem to want to care for him; they make sure that he is where he needs to be, and that he has not left all his clothes in the dryer before moving on. At such times, he can seem innocent of the considerable influence that he has acquired.

This may be a telling bit, if one digs just a bit deeper.

Assange’s parents ran a touring theatre company. In 1979, his mother, Christine, remarried; her new husband was a musician who belonged to a controversial New Age group led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The couple had a son, but broke up in 1982 and engaged in a custody struggle for Assange’s half-brother. His mother then took both children into hiding for the next five years. Assange moved several dozen times during his childhood, attending many schools, sometimes being home schooled, and later attending several universities at various times in Australia.

Enter the Santiniketan Park Association, or:

The Family and The Great White Brotherhood, is a controversial New Age group formed in Australia under the leadership of the Yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

While perhaps impossible to know precisely what forces shaped Assange, it’s not a stretch to suspect that some of them may have been rather unusual, to put it mildly. One could almost see Assange as one of Hamilton-Byrne’s own children, to the extent they were hers, of course.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne acquired fourteen infants and young children between about 1968 and 1975. Some were the natural children of Santiniketan members, others had been obtained through irregular adoptions arranged by lawyers, doctors and social workers within the group who could bypass the normal processes. The children’s identities were changed using false birth certificates or deed poll, all being given the surname ‘Hamilton-Byrne’ and dressed alike even to the extent of their hair being dyed uniformly blonde.

The children were kept in seclusion and home-schooled at Kia Lama, a rural property usually referred to as “Uptop,” at Taylor Bay on Lake Eildon near the town of Eildon, Victoria. They were taught that Anne Hamilton-Byrne was their biological mother, and knew the other adults in the group as ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’.

They were denied almost all access to the outside world, and subjected to a discipline that included frequent corporal punishment and starvation diets.

The children were frequently dosed with the psychiatric drugs Anatensol, Diazepam, Haloperidol, Largactil, Mogadon, Serepax, Stelazine, Tegretol or Tofranil.

On reaching adolescence they were compelled to undergo an initiation involving LSD: while under the influence of the drug the child would be left in a dark room, alone, apart from visits by Hamilton-Byrne or one of the psychiatrists from the group.

A few children managed to escape. One adoptive daughter, Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, later wrote a book, Unseen Unheard Unknown, in which she claimed, among other things, that children were stolen. She claimed that her biological mother had come to get rid of a baby and that members of the medical establishment in Melbourne and Geelong took part in a process where women were told that their babies had died at birth, when they had actually been taken away and eventually passed on to Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

Going back to what we can learn of him from Wikipedia, he’s something of a traveling show, himself. Six universities in 3 years, but no degrees? True, he’s innovative, but to what effect? And therein may lie the problem with Julian Assange. The case could be made that he’s a perennial mess in need of cleaning up after. And now, thanks to the Internet and an age where freedom, or what passes for it, is often held up as the only standard, without consideration for its consequences, or a prerequisite sense of responsibility required to enjoy it without doing great harm, it may fall to some government, with the help of Interpol, to put irresponsible, if not anarchistic, genie, Julian Assange back in the bottle for good.

Unfortunately, along the lines of unintended consequences, the seemingly freedom loving Assange may ultimately only drive world governments to reassess their views of the rather free form of communication we think of as the Internet, making it all the more difficult for those capable of embracing freedom with at least a modicum of responsibility to protect their own freedoms in the end. Far from freedom’s greatest champion, Assange may eventually be seen as one of its greatest enemies – though that feature of an Internet-enabled world was always going to emerge as a bug. And Assange is likely not the last one to emerge.

In 1987, after turning 16, Assange began hacking under then name “Mendax” (derived from a phrase of Horace: “splendide mendax,” or “nobly untruthful”).

He and two other hackers joined to form a group which they named the International Subversives. Assange wrote down the early rules of the subculture: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”

In response to the hacking, the Australian Federal Police raided his Melbourne home in 1991; he was reported to have accessed computers belonging to an Australian university, the Canadian telecommunications company Nortel, and other organisations, via modem.

In 1992, he pleaded guilty to 24 charges of hacking and was released on bond for good conduct after being fined AU$2100.

The prosecutor said “there is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to–what’s the expression–surf through these various computers.”

Assange later commented, “It’s a bit annoying, actually. Because I co-wrote a book about [being a hacker], there are documentaries about that, people talk about that a lot. They can cut and paste. But that was 20 years ago. It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m quite proud of it. But I understand the reason they suggest I’m a computer hacker now. There’s a very specific reason.”

Child custody issues In 1989, Assange started living with his girlfriend and soon they had a son. She separated from him after the 1991 police raid and took their son.

They engaged in a lengthy custody struggle, and did not agree on a custody arrangement until 1999. The entire process prompted Assange and his mother to form Parent Inquiry Into Child Protection, an activist group centered on creating a “central databank” for otherwise inaccessible legal records related to child custody issues in Australia.

Computer programming and university studies In 1993, Assange started one of the first ISPs in Australia, known as “Suburbia.”

Starting in 1994, Assange lived in Melbourne as a programmer and a developer of free software.

In 1995, Assange wrote Strobe, the first free and open source port scanner.

He contributed several patches to the PostgreSQL project in 1996.

He helped to write the book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier (1997), which credits him as a researcher and reports his history with International Subversives.

Starting around 1997, he co-invented the Rubberhose deniable encryption system, a cryptographic concept made into a software package for Linux designed to provide plausible deniability against rubber-hose cryptanalysis; he originally intended the system to be used “as a tool for human rights workers who needed to protect sensitive data in the field.”

Other free software that he has authored or co-authored includes the Usenet caching software NNTPCache and Surfraw, a command-line interface for web-based search engines. In 1999, Assange registered the domain leaks.org; “But,” he says, “then I didn’t do anything with it.”

Assange has reportedly attended six universities. From 2003 to 2006, he studied physics and mathematics at the University of Melbourne. On his personal web page, he described having represented his university at the Australian National Physics Competition around 2005. He has also studied philosophy and neuroscience.

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