All has changed utterly and a terrible stupidity has been born
It may or may not be true that Twitter has been censoring Wikileaks as a trend but a quick pro-active search reveals that it's a red hot topic. In the one or two minutes I browsed the search results nearly seven hundred more appeared. The arrest of Julian Assange has prompted a firestorm of abuse and sarcasm. And deep anger. The specific geo-politics aside and regardless of Assange's innocence or guilt on charges of sexual crimes, the whole extraordinary episode marks a a profound watershed in the history of the internet and the freedom it enables. All has changed utterly and a terrible stupidity has been born.
I'd like to side step the raw politics of it all but it's unavoidable. If you want to protect the many benefits and freedoms that the internet has conferred upon people you simply have to get down and dirty with the politics--albeit with a small P. Every country has skeletons in the closet, every country has done things it would rather the world did not know about and so no country can occupy the moral high ground. Criticisms of America are only the same criticisms that would be levelled against any other country if it were sufficiently and relatively transparent to be scrutinised and possessed the necessary economic and military clout to project its power across the globe.
At present the USA is top dog, the unipolar global power. Before World War Two it was my country, the United Kingdom. We did a lot of bad things but we also did a lot of good things too. Just like America. The same could never be said of Russia or China or any of the grubby, nasty little dictatorships or kleptocracies in the Middle East or South America. So, this article is not an explicit attack on America which has ulterior political motives. It just so happens that a perfect storm of digital ubiquity has broken over the duplicitous world of diplomacy and it threatens to cut a swathe through the hinterland of many freedoms without which the internet simply cannot function.
The whole Wikileaks saga has revealed both strengths and weaknesses. The most obvious choke point is that governments were able to exert political pressure on domain hosts to force them to find a pretext to throw Wikileaks off their servers and so Assange and his colleagues had to play a game of cat and mouse, relocating Wikileaks on different servers. The countervailing strength was and is that they could do this but there is always the danger that the plots will dry up, so to speak, and this whistle-blowing website will run out of hosting space as the American Government pressurises companies and countries to deny it refuge. However, it is a matter of record that it has over five hundred mirrors and closing them all down would be a big task.
you can continue to use the internet like a shopping mall and not get ripped off. Convenience shopping comes with a hefty price tag. After the retail binge comes the hangover--and the bill
Again, pressure has been exerted on commercial companies like Amazon, Ebay and banks to cut off Wikileaks' finances too. It stretches the suspension of disbelief to breaking point to accept the risible explanation put forward by these companies, namely that they suddenly had a rummage through their Terms of Service (TOS) and lo and behold, they discovered Assange and Wikileaks to be in breach. Who knew? A Legal and financial DDOS is under way. It has been reported that hackers have retaliated in kind and mounted actual DDOS too. There have been persistent reports too of US government employees being warned not to have anything to do with Wikileaks. The administration is on a war footing, replete with hysterical, inconsistent and inaccurate threats to Assange from politicians whose conduct has been despicable.
The lesson to be learned here is that in order to protect freedom on the internet it is absolutely essential to decentralise, to bypass vulnerable servers and to filter finances through open source software that is either more resistant or actually immune to government pressure on commercial interests. This episode has been a huge wake up call to all those who think that you can continue to use the internet like a shopping mall and not get ripped off. Convenience shopping comes with a hefty price tag. After the retail binge comes the hangover--and the bill.
What the Wikileaks story is really about is a clash of world views, about how we handle and process information and who controls it. The political establishments are like Europe before the Reformation and the invention of printing, like businesses trying to impose an outmoded model on top of technologies which threaten to overwhelm them. Increasingly, people whose cynicism about politics and politicians has reached epidemic proportions in the wake of the non-show WMD and the sub prime crisis are gravitating towards a politics based on more direct action and that action is hugely facilitated by the internet--whether it be Facebook or Twitter. Everything prior to Wikileaks has only really been the initial skirmishes leading up the main event. I do not have a crystal ball but I'm confident that when historians come to write the history of the internet in the early twenty-first century, this will be seen as a pivotal moment.
Despite any reservations you may have about Wikileaks (or Assange), if the secrecy and dissimulation of national governments prevail, the screw on internet freedoms will tighten and politicians will be emboldened to take more draconian measures in the name of security and protecting lives. There's nothing like a well-timed threat of being abandoned to a Hobbesian state of nature to keep the plebs in line. It is always their trump card. Who wants to be seen to put the lives of their country's soldiers at risk (even if we dont' approve of the war they are fighting)? No one.
We are also told that Wikileaks is undermining the work of diplomacy too. Both charges are largely baseless. Recent history shows that it was the decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan made by Brown, Blair, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld that has not just endangered lives but caused the actual deaths of thousands. Is it too much to speculate that if Wikileaks had been able to leak the machinations of WMD that lives might have been saved? There are times when secrecy saves lives, yes. They are times when transparency saves them. The trick is to get the balance right. Diplomacy can look like the good cop in the good cop, bad cop routine but in fact it often works as the handmaiden of the military. Diplomacy gave us the Congress of Vienna; the Treaty of Versailles gave us the Danzig Corridor, the de-militarised Rhineland and the Sudetenland all of which led to the Weimar Republic which lead to Hitler, which lead to Yalta and Potsdam and Stalin and Churchill carving out spheres of influence on a piece of paper, the cold war... and so on.
a darknet already exists. It's the invisible government that exists behind the opacity of plausible deniability
Democracies look relatively transparent compared to other systems but that is often an illusion. There is a deal of talk about the need to construct a parallel internet, a darknet based on the principle of decentralised peer to peer. It's do-able if the will and the uptake is there but in fact a darknet already exists. It's the invisible government that exists behind the opacity of plausible deniability. To assert its existence is to sound like a paranoid fantasist but the Watergate saga was real--and true. What if it had happened, not in the era of Woodward and Bernstein, but in the full glare of a global digital media? Would Woodward and Bernstein now be languishing in a prison cell and the Washington Post closed down?
freedom.That's the best word I know. Stick with it and you won't go too far wrong
There is a whirlwind of hype, exaggeration and conspiracy swirling around the arrest of and allegations against Julian Assange but none of it should distract us from the fact that Wikileaks is bigger than one man. It can survive him, regardless. This issue is not about one man but about one central thing: freedom. That's the best word I know. Stick with it and you won't go too far wrong. Right now though, as the storm rages overhead, some urgent and serious planning needs to be done to de-centralise as much of the internet as humanly possible. Ultimately, that's the ace card to protect ourselves and our freedoms.
In one final irony, Richard Stallman has been shouting hard and long like Cassandra, warning about the trap of cloud computing. In the indecent haste to adopt the next big thing he was ignored or scorned. It is a delicious outcome of the law of unintended consequences that it took the censorship of Wikileaks and the arrest of Assange to make people realise that trusting your information, and therefore ultimately your freedom, to the commercial cloud made them hostage to fortune and to corporate and governmental strong arm tactics.
The Wikileaks story is a moving target. Since I started writing this article the skirmishing has escalated to open war. It's a Fort Sumpter moment perhaps. The opening salvos have been returned with interest as Operation Payback, co-ordinated by hackivists, has launched DDOS attacks on Mastercard, Visa and Paypal who have all been deemed guilty of cutting off Wikileaks' finances. It's big news--though you wouldn't know it if you're looking for the story as trending on Twitter. In fact, it's massive. As predicted, it's gone viral.
Viral, and very serious. In the minds of Joe Public the danger is that Wikileaks will be associated with this hacking, not with principled whistle blowing. Worse, it may give the political establishments the excuse to go further and come out of it looking like the good guys.
These are dangerous times for internet freedom. The gift of hindsight is needed in the here and now to try and gauge the consequences of action in the future. The primrose path to perdition is paved with the corpses of good intentions. Our first duty is to think coherently and, like a chess grandmaster, to think ahead and try to predict the consequences of actions. Unfortunately, all sides are in retaliatory and escalation threat mode.
I know which side I'm on of course and I want it to win but I want to be still standing, digitally speaking, when the smoke of battle clears.