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.