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The great beast

india Updated: Dec 11, 2010 22:08 IST

Many Americans believe theirs is an exceptional nation, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the shining city on the hill, the journey's end of the world's huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the beacon of freedom and democracy. Vietnamese, Afghans, Iraqis and Latin Americans may have a very different view of the US, but nobody is interested in asking them. Recently, America's love for freedom has been extended to the internet and the US government has loudly lamented the restrictions on internet freedom by countries such as China, Iran and Russia.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an impassioned plea for freedom on the Net. This is what she said: "Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks… These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right 'to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.'

With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day. As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools."

Not to be left behind, President Barack Obama, in a speech in China, said, "I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves."

Yet consider the US government's reaction to WikiLeaks. It has spewed venom against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; it has shut down servers and leaned on Amazon to stop hosting him; it has blocked access to his PayPal funds; the Library of Congress has blocked the site; students have been threatened not to download its revelations and US politicians have openly made death threats against Assange.

Visa and Mastercard have announced they will not process donations to WikiLeaks. Miraculously, one of the Swiss banks has frozen its account, without any court order or criminal investigation. They seem to have different standards for the accounts of the thousands of tax dodgers and money launderers who, for some reason, prefer Swiss banks.

All this looks eerily similar to the way the Chinese go about censoring the internet or, indeed, suppressing dissidents. After all, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize has been charged with 'inciting subversion of State power', a charge that could also be levelled against WikiLeaks. And the outrage over WikiLeaks bears a disturbing resemblance to Iran's fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

But is the US really worried whether its cables leave a few red faces? Not likely. At stake are far greater freedoms, freedoms the US government is trying to protect by going after WikiLeaks. These include the freedom for the government to say one thing and do another, to say one thing in private and the opposite in public and the freedom to lie to its own people.

These are freedoms held dear by rulers throughout the world, which accounts for the impartial hostility with which all of them have reacted to WikiLeaks. For, as Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States put it so very aptly long ago, "Your people, sir, is a great beast", not to be trusted with anything of consequence.

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint. The views expressed by the author are personal