Wikileaks, information and democracy

The scene outside Julian Assange's extradition hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court, London, December 7th 2010. Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve been fascinated by the recent developments in the world of new media.

“New media” is a much-abused phrase, but in the case of Wikileaks and Twitter, the phrase is literally accurate. Wikileaks and Twitter really are new mediums: they are less than five years old.

A wiki and a social network like Twitter are both ultimately also platforms that rely on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that criss-cross the world. And because of that, they can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET – ironically, a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

This week, courtesy of Wikileaks, we learnt a lot more about the sinews of political and financial power that link the modern internet to the security and executive agencies of the contemporary nation-state. The content of these lessons has much to teach us about the state of our democratic societies.

Under sustained pressure from US politicians, several important aspects of Wikileaks’ infrastructure were shut down by the corporations that manage them. First, Amazon shut down Wikileaks’ servers. Then PayPal stopped processing online donations to Wikileaks from supporters.

Interestingly, Wikileaks is not really a “wiki”, in the sense that Wikipedia is: it can’t be collaboratively edited and it is very far from open access.

Nor are its philosophies necessarily original: they are in fact an amalgam of the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Mill and Paine, and the 1980s and 90s techno-millenarianism of writers such as John Perry Barlow. But in its technological sophistication, its intent and most importantly its impact, Wikileaks is a recognisably new phenomenon. There have been many attempts by internet companies and media organisations to encourage whistleblowers and apply the ideas of scrutiny to monitor governments. But none have had the political impact that Wikileaks has achieved in just a few short years. Wikileaks is new — not because it is on the internet, but because it is making powerful elites in the government and media genuinely uneasy.

Wikileaks is web publisher that relies on clever encryption and distributed servers and publishing platforms. In doing so, it necessarily relies on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that crisscross the world. And because of that, Wikileaks can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET — a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

Wikileaks is certainly more than merely a very clever whistle-blower protection and publication system. While the encryption and other information security aspects of the site are impressive, perhaps more important is that Wikileaks allows disgruntled would-be leakers to turn the power of modern information technology against the nation-states and large corporations that now rely on it.

In an ironic turn that Michel Foucault would surely have applauded, the sheer amount of information now hiding behind government and corporate firewalls makes that information increasingly vulnerable to disclosure. The current cache of Wikileaks cables being released, for instance, have all been distributed on the US government’s SIPRNET, which stands for Secret Internet Router Protocol Network. However, in this context, “secret” is something of a euphemism. As Kevin Rudd himself has pointed out, more than two million US officials have access to SIPRNET. More than 180 US agencies were signed up to SIRPNET by 2005. No wonder much of this content eventually made its way into the public domain. The wonder is that it hasn’t been leaked sooner.

Some of the sharpest thinking about what Wikileaks means has come from the intelligence community itself. US security think-tank Stratfor, for instance, points out that there is a “culture of classfication” rampant inside the US government, in which even relatively mundane documents are classified under Executive Order 13526 as “confidential” or “secret”. Consequently, according to Stratfor’s Scott Sewart, “this culture tends to create so much classified material that stays classified for so long that it becomes very difficult for government employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and what truly needs to be protected.”

Information probably doesn’t “want to be free”, as the activist and technologist Stewart Brand famously announced but there are plenty of people who would like it to be. Some of them work in the US military, including Private First Class Bradley Manning.

The content of the Wikileaks releases so far has been devastating, not for what it says, but because it has cut through the lies, disinformation and media spin on which modern democracies increasingly depend. Many citizens will not be surprised by the dark truths that Wikileaks reveals, but they will scarcely be energised to a new optimism about their governments. That US forces violate rules of engagement to gun down innocent civilians, or that the war in Afghanistan is going badly, or that the US State Department actively spies on the UN, or that the Saudis want Iran’s nuclear facilities destroyed: none of these revelations are particularly surprising. But they tear away the veil of deceit behind which politicians and other democratic officials routinely operate in the course of their daily affairs. In the face of truth, deniability is implausible.

Much of what has been written about Wikileaks has missed this fundamental point. It is interesting that Assange himself justifies the cable releases by pointing to the lies of governments to their own people in justifying wars, writing, “there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about [just] wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies.”

As The Guardian’s John Naughton has pointed out,  there is a delicious irony to the relatively indiscriminate way in which Wikileaks has attacked the sacred cows of the left and the right. It was Wikileaks, remember, that published the hacked emails of UK climate researchers — leaks which commentators and politicians on the right were happy to seize upon as incontrovertible evidence of a giant cover-up in climate science.

Now that Wikileaks has turned the blowtorch on the cherished organs of US national security, those same right wing commentators are calling for punitive action to shut down the organisation.

Many on the left have been equally discomforted, as the confused and savage reaction of many in the Australian Labor Party demonstrates. As Simon Longstaff argued yesterday on The Drum, “it would seem incumbent on those who criticise Wikileaks to renounce the use of leaks in general”.

As with every revolution, Wikileaks has also forced politicians, corporations and officials to make snap decisions about where they stand — and with whom they stand. In the case of USinternet firms like Amazon and PayPal, that decision was to side quickly and decisively with theUS government. Further down in his article, Naughton makes the point that:

the attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on … you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.

 

The other really penetrating account of Wikileaks comes from European media theorists Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens. In “Twelve Theses on Wikileaks”, they make a number of telling observations — including that some of the most uncomfortable Wikileaks revelations involve the rapidly declining potency of the media itself. They write:

The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass circulation media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and the politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. The shift from information to infotainment has been embraced by journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider, enveloped by the steamy ambiance of “citizen journalism”, DIY news reporting in the blogosphere and even faster social media like Twitter.

 

Or, as Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald back in June, “how is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”

Instead, of course, much of the media coverage has concentrated on Julian Assange’s sensational personal conduct, and the sexual assault allegations levelled against him by two Swedish women.

This is a different — although obviously connected — issue. It should be possible to distinguish the Wikileaks website and organisation from the personal conduct of Julian Assange. If allegations presented to the British court by Swedish authorities are true — allegations which have yet to be tested — Assange has committed a crime.

It is frankly disturbing to see many on the left who one would expect to see defending the rights of women, like Naomi Wolf (Naomi Wolf!) make disparaging remarks about the seriousness of these allegation. One of the allegations is for a rape under Swedish law: a non-consensual sex act in which Assange allegedly forced the claimant’s legs open and of ‘”[used] his body weight to hold [her] down in a sexual manner.” The facts of this matter can and should be established in a free and fair judicial process. But as a matter of principle, no should still mean no.

Ultimately, the importance of Wikileaks may be that it is beginning to reveal the contours of a new sort of social contract between citizens and their rulers: a type of relationship that historian and academic John Keane has called “monitory democracy.” For Keane, “monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, a variety of‘ ‘post-Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms.”

Monitory democracy, in which non-government and non-media organisations start to exert meaningful and impactful scrutiny of the state and the corporation, holds the promise for a more balanced informational relationship between ordinary citizens and the power elites. But it also implies some disturbing corollaries.

There is a reason conservative commentators are likening Wikileaks to a kind of informational terrorist group: it uses its military-grade encryption tools for the political goal of destabilising governments and states. In this sense, Wikileaks and especially Anonymous, the hacking group suspected of attacking Amazon, Visa and other sites in retaliation for the Wikileaks crackdown, are “non-state actors” — the term given by security and international relations analysts to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

We aren’t really at the beginning of the first global “information war”, but there is a grain of truth to the claims that the willingness of hackers and cyber-activists to attack web infrastructure represents something new and important. And in this analysis, the flip-side of monitory democracy is informational insurrection.

 

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One thought on “Wikileaks, information and democracy

  1. Pingback: Wikileaks and new media | Tim Singleton Norton

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