Jerome Taylor: Crusader for transparency or reckless anti-American?

Who is Julian Assange and what does he want? To some, especially in the United States, the Wikileaks founder is a dangerous information anarchist who revels in the chaos he creates and should be treated as an enemy.

Supporters laud the lanky 39-year-old as a champion of transparency – a man who has harnessed the power of the internet to steal from the information rich and hand it back to the poor. The reality, as always, is probably somewhere in between.

"Transparency creates a better society for all people," is the way he phrases his mission on his website. "Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions."

Until Wikileaks started spilling Washington's secrets, few bothered to examine Assange's motives. But over the past eight months, the site has exclusively haemorrhaged exposés of the US, and the organisation's next scoop is said to be revealing corruption inside a major American bank.

The leaks have led to howls of protest from Washington and some of Assange's colleagues have left in protest at his seemingly anti-American bias and a lack of transparency inside his own organisation. But the site's founder maintains that he is neither anti-capitalist nor anti-American – his network simply exposes corruption and untruth wherever it lies. It just happens that this year was the year he was handed a series of US-based leaks.

Assange believes Wikileaks is doing the world a favour. "This organisation practises civil obedience," he told Time magazine this week in a Skype call from an undisclosed location in Britain. "We try to make the world more civil and act against abusive organisations that are pushing it in the opposite direction."

He told Forbes: "I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Wikileaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical."

Yet Assange's upbringing and his actions as an adult have been constantly framed by a passionately anti-authoritarian streak.

By his own admission his childhood was unorthodox – he had moved 37 times by his 14th birthday and his mother avoided enrolling him in school because she was worried that "formal education would inculcate an unhealthy respect for authority".

It worked. As a teenager he became a highly gifted and prolific hacker, heading a team of cyber activists that called themselves the International Subversives. Online he went by the moniker Mendax, a Latin reference to the "splendidly deceptive" in the poet Horace's Odes. It was a mixture of those skills and a deep-seated mistrust of authority that created the Wikileaks we know today.