Wikileaks was dominating the headlines last week. In fact, it was kind of hard to miss the news story about the Wikileaks diplomatic cables because all one really had to do was tune in to a national news station for about a half an hour. While the US government has condemned what Wikileaks has done, we examine why attacking Wikileaks via censorship, financial or PR means is a bad idea.
I want to say right off the top that I do personally side with Wikileaks on a number of fronts for full disclosure purposes. However, my personal views on the matter do not, in fact, affect why I think any effort from the US government to target Wikileaks is a bad idea in the first place because one could condemn what Wikileaks has done and still agree that any effort to censor the controversial website might be a bad idea.
The Wikileaks controversy
Wikileaks has drawn a storm of controversy through disclosing, over a period of time which is still ongoing at this point, over 250,000 diplomatic cables. Some have argued that it puts lives at risk while others argue that there is absolutely no evidence of that and some cables have redacted critical pieces of information. Some argue that disclosing such information is damaging international security and international co-operation, others have argued that it has opened the floodgates to the secret world of diplomacy and that the leaks also strengthen the US position on the international stage because it creates an unprecedented level of transparency – all the while exposing corruption and wrong-doing in the process.
Whatever your take on this hot button topic is, few would argue that this story hasn’t caught a huge amount of international attention and draws a seemingly unprecedented amount of attention to the internet. What it also did was put freedom of press in to the spotlight and really brought forth questions on what constitutes a news organization – a debate that hasn’t seen much activity since the blogosphere really took off a few years back. As I watched the story unfold via the ZeroPaid forums, it became very obvious very quickly that it’s extremely difficult, if not, impossible, to not get swamped by all the information being posted whether through the Wikileaks cables or through the ensuing controversy and fallout of it all.
It’s also clear that the US government wants to stop Julian Assange and Wikileaks. To what extent they have is definitely unclear, but some who side more with Wikileaks would argue that the US government is pulling the strings when it came to PayPal (PayPal did admit they received a letter from the government regarding Wikileaks), Visa and Mastercard pulling their support from Wikileaks – not to mention the shutdown of the original DNS (reports suggest that the original .org demain was returned). Unfortunately for the US government, if there were efforts on their part to shut down Wikileaks, those efforts failed as thousands of supporters came to the websites aid to set up a number of mirrors to the site – those numbers ranging in the thousands, thus making it virtually indestructible for the time being. The question is, should the US government be attacking Wikileaks in the first place if they are? What can those in power learn from the internets brief history (brief compared to, say, how long writing has been around) with regard to something that is deemed undesirable by some? There’s some, I’d argue, extensive knowledge and insight one can glean from the copyright debate.
The Similarities of Anti-Piracy Efforts and Efforts to Shutdown File-Sharing
Clear back in 1999, Shawn Fanning released the first version of Napster. It would since then mainstream how people acquire and share music online (file-sharing did exist before Napster in some respects, but it was much more unknown to the general population at that point). As many who know about the file-sharing debate know, Napster was ultimately shut down as a result of an effort by the music industry. While the music industry may have initially thought that the shutdown of Napster was a major success, it would ultimately become the industry’s own undoing as more sophisticated networks and clients immediately became popularized – networks that would ultimately be much more difficult to shut down than Napster.
It might be difficult to see how this tidbit of history has anything to do with Wikileaks at first, but for the seasoned observer, the parallels are rather striking. Wikileaks has been releasing hundreds of diplomatic cables. A number of governments from around the world were quite upset with this including the US government and the Australian government to name two. There was seemingly an effort by the powers that be to shut down the website when the .org domain of Wikileaks, the main domain, was taken offline. Wikileaks simply moved to another domain and then, subsequently, initiated a mass mirroring effort to make it much more difficult for Wikileaks to be shut down. In both instances, you shut down one source online, others immediately come on to the scene to take it’s place. As some know, Wikileaks isn’t the only secret spilling website around. There is also Cryptome and, more recently, OpenLeaks. All of which seem to want greater transparency from the powers that be whether it is government or corporate.
Why It’s a Bad Idea to Attack Wikileaks
The internet is like the mythical beast, the hydra. You chop one head off, and others grow back. This line of thinking has been circulating the internet for years and its difficult to really argue against that, even today. The internet was, after all, initially designed to be a communication system meant to survive a nuclear bomb.
Someone once also said that the internet views censorship as damage and simply routs around it. Indeed, every attempt to shut down file-sharing, to date, has proven futile. Even the shutdown of several domains has sparked efforts to create an alternate DNS system including a decentralized method as proposed by Peter Sunde of The Pirate Bay. It would ultimately make it much more difficult to censor a website through a system like a p2p-based DNS system and, as some say, would be made specifically to evade censorship, wherever it may come from.
What it all means is that trying to shut down something through traditional or technical means is likely not going to work. What efforts to shut down something like Wikileaks does represent to some is the next test of free speech and the internet. Can the internet be free of government control, regardless of your views of the material itself? The question is no longer can movies, music and games be downloaded online, but now, can transparency of the government be achieved through the internet and can internal information be leaked?
If someone wanted to leak information whether it’s for “the thrill of the release” or they see something terrible going on on the inside and want the whole world to know about it or whatever other reason they can think of, there is much more awareness that it’s possible to find an organization that will anonymously post this kind of sensitive material online now. It’s the cultural tension that is coming out of the Wikileaks debate that will ultimately be the most threatening to those in power who have something to hide – whether it’s legitimately hiding this information or to hide criminal behavior. If the US wants to declare all out war on Wikileaks, they are free to do so, but they would arguably be making the exact same mistake the music industry made over ten years ago. If the US government successfully killed Wikileaks, then yes, the site is dead, but what’s to stop people from imitating the site? The war to stop such a site from existing only further publicizes the issue, not just the site. As a result, the perceived enemy of the state will only grow stronger, not weaker. The knee-jerk reaction to shut them down might not necessarily be wise. As Beverly Crusher from Star Trek once said, if someone drives a knife in to someone, do you necessarily pull the knife back out again?
Publicly trying to attack people who leak material to the public will only increase the appetite for suppressed information. Who knows? The next Wikileaks might not be so careful to protect peoples lives with regards to sensitive material. The next person to leak confidential material might not have as big of a blabber mouth. Then what? Say that we weren’t so lucky this time? I’d argue that governments from around the world have a great opportunity here to not make the exact same mistake as the music industry over ten years ago. I don’t know what the answer to all of this is, but what I do say is that at least the various governments around the world have an idea of what might not be a good idea.