Why Wikileaks polarizes America's Internet politics

At IGP we pride ourselves on having a pretty good bead on internet governance issues, but we have to admit that the emergence of Wikileaks as a global governance issue took us by surprise. The internet has proven itself to be a source of political disruption in a way we did not anticipate.

There have been strategic leaks of diplomatic information many times before. Often the practitioners are diplomats or other insiders in the political-military-diplomatic axis who use it as a form of policy influence. What makes this case different are the following things:

a) the massive scale of the information released, something that could only happen in a digitized, networked form;
b) the principles underlying the revelations, which are based not so much on a particular policy debate but on a generalized ideology of access to information espoused by the A2K/open-source movement and more recently the growing Pirate Party;
c) how the US government and its international “partners” have systematically pressured U.S.-based private sector internet companies to shut off access to Wikileaks, and also generated unlawful DDoS attacks in response. The Guardian provides a sequential list of state actors and private sector companies who have abandoned Wikileaks under pressure, often making false claims about terms of service violations. (As EFF's Eddan Katz wrote, “Freedom of expression is priceless; for everything else, there's Mastercard.)
d) In the pre-Internet era, at least in the USA, during a “normal” leakage there was a clear separation between the leaker and the publisher. Governments were expected to keep their secrets, but if they failed to do so, and a journalist got their hands on information that the public might be interested in, the First amendment and a regard for accountability meant that the journalists were exempt from prosecution almost regardless of how the information was originally obtained. It was the leaker who was on the spot. Any attempt to suppress or censor release of the information had to follow legal channels. Those distinctions seem to have gone out the window in this case: Assange is not the leaker, he is the publisher, but he is being treated by his critics as if he stole the documents. And not only is be being censored, but the pressure to censor him is coming from non-legal, extra-legal and illegal means.

To get to the root of the internet governance implications of the Wikileaks episode, however, one must examine the fulminations coming from the American Enterprise Institute, normally a rather staid distributor of dully predictable conservative policy wonkery. Assange, it tells us, is a “terrorist.” Wikileaks is “at war” with the United States. The whole world must polarize around this issue: You are “either with us, or you are with Wikileaks.” Assange should be put to death or assassinated. The U.S. military should unleash full-scale cyberwar against Wikileaks and any supporting sites. These are not a couple of passing angry editorials. It has been going on for days. Note also that this hysteria is largely confined to the USA. As one of our European IGP partners wrote, “most people see it as little more than gossip and, yes, some “revelations” that we already knew, really. Not to trivialize it, but states [here] do not respond to it as some sort of existential threat.”

So a few tatty cables and discomfiting revelations spark demands for death, assassination, censorship and cyber-war. What prompts this huge overreaction? We know that it is not any particular revelation in the cables or any specific security damage done. This is a clash of principles, a rupture in the rules of the game that the practitioners of US foreign policy find astonishing and threatening. And it is a rupture only made possible by the scale and transnational scope of internet-enabled communications. Not content to characterize computers and networks as weapons, the American Right now edges closer and closer to being enemies of the internet itself. Despite all their noises about opposing “big government” they reveal themselves to be completely and unambiguously on the Hamiltonian side of the great American Jefferson-Hamilton debate. The new polarity is here: Internet freedom vs. state power.

AEI and the neocons accuse Assange and wikileaks of being dangerous anarchists, but this is a case of Freudian projection. They are the anarchists. The reason they are so upset is that they believe deeply in the kind of unchecked executive power that is associated with the rise of a globally extended national security state. Empires, global spheres of influence and international affairs operate in an environment of political anarchy. Running an empire requires an army of diplomats and spies who have to strategically manipulate access to information, make opportunistic deals with unsavory foreign rulers, prop up favored puppets and undermine others, all with the threat of military force hanging over the process. The tension between republic and empire has been true since the time of the Romans. Many in the U.S. foreign policy and military establishments believe that public oversight is a nuisance in such operations; indeed, the most hard core imperialists openly contend that they are impossible to reconcile. The foreign policy hard-liners want both untrammeled power to surveill the public and complete insulation from any reciprocal surveillance of their activities.

The latest Wikileaks have thrown a hand grenade into this modus operandi; it has pulled the cloak away from this amoral, rule-free world of foreign affairs. Aside from the often unflattering personal portrayals there, we see that all kinds of information that is classified as “secret” really doesn't need to be. Assange has revealed the deep contradiction between traditional liberal-democratic values regarding transparent and accountable government, and the existence of a U.S. empire on the other. Revealing this contradiction seriously undercuts the practice of business as usual in American foreign policy. This is what is so unforgivable. It is noteworthy that both mainstream liberal internationalists such as Hilary Clinton and the hawkish neoconservatives at AEI are on the same page.

Whatever one's opinion about the wisdom, responsibility and ethical justification of the revelations, it has shown that there is a new countervailing force in the world that the militarists and diplomats don't know how to control yet. This is, on the whole, a good thing. It is true that the disclosure power Wikileaks invoked can be abused. It can do real damage. But in relative terms, it is far more benign that the power it is being used against in this case and its legitimacy resides more in public opinion than anything else. The hysteria generated by foreign policy hawks polarizes the world around the internet and its capabilities and shows that, all too often, those who claim to be defenders of freedom are its worst enemies.


4 comments

  1. Anonymous

    I totally agree Milton. I've been following Wikileaks intermittently for a while now and the current state of affairs was foreshadowed by its release of swiss bank records and video footage frrom Afghanistan. Another useful rupture to point out is how the United States has recently championed free speech and freedom on the Interent only to find how uncomfortable it is to follow their own policy.
    Wikileaks persistence in the face of well-organized (state) resistance is both unsurprising and startling at the same time. As some pundits have pointed out, this is actually a worst case disaster planning scenario with Wikileaks anticipating just such challenges. Other commentators have pointed out that Cloud Evangelists will have a more difficult time making their case if commercial interests are so easily influenced into taking action.
    Finally, the ongoing struggle between the content industry and their unlawful distributors illustrates the scope of the challenge from a state point of view. As Gerd Leonhard recently pointed out at a talk at ictQATAR, piracy results from a market failure. While US may decry the release of such records and seek to punish those it deems responsible, there is a huge global “market” for such information. Attempts to curtail distribution of such content in the face of strong demand (and bear in mind there are groups all over the world seeking evidence of “perfidious US influence”) is almost certainly doomed to failure.
    That said and as compromising as the information contained in the files are, the US has exerted it's capabilities to influence and control the Internet in a soft and indirect fashion. Stronger measures have not yet been undertaken, or if they have, remain hidden e.g. a stuxnet style virus that becomes active when it encounters the Wikileaks archive file. The problem from the US point of view is that such strong measures in cyberspace usually have the enviable quality of anonymity. The emergence of any such malware in present circumstances would be associated with the US government, regardless of any claims of authorship. Moreover, such malware is unlikely to actually “solve” the problem as the distributed copies are likely to also be on static media. In the end, stronger measures would be entirely counterproductive. RIAA's war on file sharers has only served to fuel an arms race developing more efficient and anonymous applications. At the same time, the music inductry has seen its profits plummet. The cold war on Wikileaks is likely to produce similar results for the US government, especially in its current highly charged political environment where citizens are increasingly distrustful of their government.

  2. Anonymous

    Further reading has revealed that my characterization of Wikileaks rationale for disclosure was overly simple, if not too far off base. I would recommend this article by Aaron Bady for a deeper exploration:
    Based on Assange's own writings Bady argues that he views powerful states as similar to, if not literally, criminal conspiracies. “…the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make 'leaks' a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment. …Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire.”

    Bady also observes that “Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency?”

    “Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.”

    This approach is sometime distorted by Wikileaks critics to say that Assange's goal is literally to attack transparency or to make government more closed. Not correct, really. His point is that “leaking leaves [conspiratorial systems] exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you for a cogent argument tying together what the Twittersphere has been saying for weeks.
    People who support WikiLeaks are NOT anarchists run amok finally freed of their shackles and eager to support a terrorist. No, we are people who managed to get a global education, a technical education, a moral foundation,– and who see the backlash in historic and ethical terms.
    I coined the phrase “Law IS Social Media” because of exactly this situation: law is being rewritten daily because, first and foremost, it is a creature of human communication. When the modes of communication change, when the distance between nodes goes to zero, the law has to adapt. Law must eventually conform to reality,–not the other way around. The process is as painful as it is inevitable.
    What we see here, however, is that the fundamentalist mindset is inelastic,–a trait which goes beyond political affiliation. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are really interested in adaptive change,–but this is precisely what new media requires.
    WikiLeaks has become a Such A Big Deal adn that is a good thing. But, the US government is making a huge mistake in acting as if it is, as you wrote, “existential.” It is the hysterics who are making this historic, while they reveal just how much they prefer dictatorial government to the freedom enshrined in our Constitution,–“freedom,” for which our soldiers are being killed and maimed daily.