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Barack Obama v. Julian Assange: a duel between two Internet heroes

(Steve Rhodes, flickr)

The arrest of the founder of WikiLeaks has triggered, among other things, a showdown between two modern-day heroes. Julian Assange and Barack Obama are representatives of the Internet's revolution in politics and information. Indeed both would-be heroes were born on and thanks to the web.

The ties between Assange and the web are obvious to us all. But these days, few seem to remember how intertwined Obama is with the Internet. The "Change" that the Democratic candidate brought two years ago to Washington has its roots on-line, with his campaign's use of these new communication tools to effectively break with the past.

During the primaries, Barack Obama was considered a brilliant mind but a marginal politician. Compared to the well-oiled, hyper-institutional war machine of Hillary Clinton's campaign, Obama and his team spent the early months riding a wave of hopefulness that would somehow pay off down the road. Surprisingly Obama won primary after primary, state after state, with tactics that political analysts would finally understand was a mix of traditional political tools, handshaking and back slapping, and the most innovative aggregation tools the web had to offer.

A team of young people described as "miraculous' built the widest reaching political network the Internet had ever seen: sending constant emails, able to contact groups on the spot to surround the candidate, always updating their calendars and expanding appointments. And of course, it was on the web that a campaign was launched to collect contributions from individuals that would sustain Obama, and ultimately out-perform the regular meetings of rich donors that, until then, were considered the only way to raise money. While Hillary was going to dinners in New York to find donations, Obama was collecting cash from the web with his small but brave team. It proved to be the difference.

The network proved - if used socially, and on a large scale – to be a way to bring back into politics large segments of the population that hadn't voted for years. Obama's victory was due in particular to the return to the polls of the youth, who were convinced by him to vote thanks to his new techniques for doing politics.

The affection and gratitude that the new President had for the web was also expressed after he was elected, with his declaration that he would give up everything except his Blackberry, confessing to be totally ‘dependent" on the web. To this day, if you were connected to the network established in the primaries, you receive announcements about Obama several times a week asking you questions or explaining things and urging you to stay in touch.

Thus there is a kind of "poetic justice" that, among other things, the U.S. President has become the Internet's repressor now that the web has turned against him. WikiLeaks' publication of documents from the State Department is destabilizing his administration. Still, it is quite significant, and certainly heartbreaking for those who supported him, to see Obama in the role of a leader seeking the arrest of Assange, who is now the symbol of freedom of expression, of transparency, and the power of the web. A heavy price will be paid for this President's position on Assange, a loss of support among the more passionate and dynamic segments of the electorate who were closest to him.

But beyond the poetic justice of history in this new role for Obama, there is the larger story about the inevitability of power. The personal story of the American President, not only as it pertains to the web, reminds us that power has its own laws. No matter how many promises you make, once acquired, power takes on its own logic. Sadly, it must be said that Obama is not the first prophet to be devoured by the system that created him.

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