December 04, 2010

Wikileaks Saga Reveals Governments' Hypocrisy, Deep Fear of Internet

Greetings. The quotes from mainstream media pundits are all over the news. "Wikileaks' Julian Assange should be assassinated -- Obama should order a drone hit!" "Assange is like a James Bond villain!" "Assange should be hung by his balls in a public square!" And so on.

Meanwhile, Internet domain and hosting companies, PayPal, and presumably nearly everyone else who has either gotten a private call from one or more government officials -- or are trying to head off those calls -- are pulling domain names and payment mechanisms out from under Wikileaks faster than you can say "Sensitive Compartmented Information."

A cynical observer might almost imagine that there was an orchestrated plan afoot to focus attention on the messenger -- rather than the messages.

And yet, if we step back a bit and survey this situation with a bit of objectivity, we can see that the reaction to the latest Wikileaks saga is probably far more important in the long run than the content of the leaked diplomatic cables themselves.

Various commentators have noted that successfully prosecuting Assange for anything related to this release is definitely not a slam dunk. Forget about treason -- he's not a U.S. citizen. The 1917 Espionage Act has -- as far as I know -- never been successfully used against a media release of classified information, and attempts to declare mainstream media (who are also releasing this data) as immune, but a primarily Internet-based operation like Wikileaks to be culpable, seem problematic at best.

The politicians and "political analysts" from both major parties are piling on of course. As usual, Sen. Joe Lieberman is demonstrating his "we don't need no stinkin' civil liberties" attitude by launching new legislative efforts to criminalize information releases. Over on CNN, a pair of left/right-wing talking heads maligned Republican Congressman Ron Paul -- calling him a "nut" and a "Martian" among other things -- in response to Paul's suggestion that there might be some free speech issues involved in the Wikileaks case.

And a spin right out of the Twilight Zone has already begun as well, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton now suggesting that the leaked cables show how professional U.S. diplomacy really is (fascinating, though I will agree that many of the documents show very high quality writing skills indeed!)

Also from Fantasyland, we have the U.S. government ordering government workers not to look at any of the leaked information now widely publicly available -- even from their personal, home computers. Perhaps at the last minute the government removed text also ordering workers not to think about pink elephants, either.

Assange has quite a swagger, and does not come across as a particularly likable fellow, which both play into the hands of his adversaries, and helps them minimize facts like Wikileaks' prior outreach to governments offering to redact aspects of the materials before release. If you make yourself easily demonized, you shouldn't be surprised when you find your yearbook image released to the media complete with Photoshopped horns and pointed tail.

Amidst all this, the secondary attacks have already begun. Media commentators have expressed disdain that various bloggers and tech world "luminaries" have publicly noted concerns about the manner in which attacks on Wikileaks have unfolded. Whether those concerns are focused on Wikileaks itself, or on the free speech implications of trying to shut down Wikileaks' domain names and sites, the implication is that anyone not enthusiastically volunteering to personally pull the electrocution switch on Assange is obviously either an idiot, un-American, or both.

There is indeed considerable concern in the technology community -- especially the Internet community per se -- about the reactions to Wikileaks. I personally suspect that there are at least two aspects to this.

On one hand, there are many in the Internet community who feel very strongly that free speech in most situations should get highest priority, unless genuine, imminent danger would be associated with such speech. Given that the material released by Wikileaks from SIPRNET was all classified Secret or lower -- and had been made officially available en masse to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Defense Department operatives, it seems difficult to realistically argue about horrendous, imminent threats to result from the leaking of those materials. If they were so critical, why were they given such low security classifications? Why were they made so widely and easily stolen by low-level personnel -- almost guaranteeing a leak of some sort at some point given the nature of the Internet.

What those leaked cables mainly represent is an embarrassment. And a key reason they are so embarrassing is that they expose the deep and enduring hypocrisies of governments around the world -- including the U.S. -- not only in the ways that they deal with each other, but in the manner of the subtle fibs and outright lies that they disseminate to their own citizenries. Naturally though, governments consider it their prerogative to publicly leak whatever aspects of such information their deem useful in the furtherance of their own objectives. But woe to anyone else who dares to assume such an aspect uninvited and unapproved.

And this may best describe what could be the second reason many in the Internet tech community are concerned about the reaction to the Wikileaks disclosures. My own sense is that tech types -- geeks -- whatever you want to call them (including myself), often have a lower tolerance to hypocrisy than many persons in the general population. Perhaps that's from spending so much time dealing with the more "absolute" world of software and systems, where the sort of "fabric of lies" that seems to underly so much of international diplomacy would be utterly unacceptable and disastrous. Some may argue that such falsehoods are necessary to the smooth functioning of diplomacy itself. If that's true, the Internet indeed poses enormous problems for the diplomatic corps.

In this context, we can actually begin to "connect the dots" in interesting and perhaps enlightening ways.

The Internet virtually guarantees that information once leaked can never be effectively blocked -- a fact that holds true for Wikileaks data of course, but Wikileaks is just the tip of the iceberg moving forward.

Overall this is an utterly terrifying concept to governments, in a manner that has never existed before in human history. Even the invention of the printing press, for all the furor surrounding it, did not so utterly decimate the ability to control the flow of information.

In many parts of the world -- now increasingly including the U.S. as well -- any entity that creates information, releases information, or organizes and helps people find information -- and who doesn't also strictly toe the government line, risks being declared, if not an enemy of the state, at least a subject of suspicion.

So we see governments striking back, attempting to get the Internet "under control" -- in a desperate push to bring back the good old days of information authority.

The domain name system is being increasingly used as a law enforcement and censorship tool. Governments around the planet are demanding that the Internet and all systems associated with the Internet be modified or purpose-built to enable easy government wiretapping and disabling of any associated encryption systems.

Calls for government-issued Internet access credentials wouldn't only help to reveal who downloaded a movie without paying for it, but also whose roving eyes have peered at the latest information leak or other unapproved forbidden fruits of the Net.

We seem to be approaching something of a "perfect storm" of events, where the technology and policies of the Internet are colliding head-on with many traditional sensibilities of government.

While we can always hope for a reasoned "meeting of the minds" to amicably deal with such controversies, the realities of politics today, and in particular the reactions to the ongoing Wikileaks saga, make this something considerably less than a comfortable bet.

Julian Assange is not a hero. Nor does he appear to be a devil -- the requisite evil intent seems absent. Even many free speech advocates would call his methodology misguided. Whether or not his methods are criminal is thankfully not for me to determine (however if they are indeed determined to be criminal, mainstream media may wish to consider seriously ramping up their legal teams, post haste).

Regardless of how you feel about the Wikileaks data itself -- the actual content of those cables -- and no matter where you stand regarding the propriety or recklessness of Assange's methods, he may well have done us all an enormous favor.

Through his actions, and critically through the resulting publicly visible reactions of government, media, and their associates and minions, the coming conflict between media, government, and the Internet has been drawn into starker relief than perhaps ever before.

But what will we learn from this? Where do we go from here?

How many really care?

Do you?


Posted by Lauren at December 4, 2010 05:13 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein