Wikileaks, a study in contrasts: A jailed man and a changing world. Governments and corporations versus 16 year old hackers. The dust of the original Wikileaks site and the thousands of subsequently spawned Hydra copies. And through it all the theater of the absurd — Assange pulled into custody under charges that have, at once, nothing and everything to do with the release of the diplomatic cables. The fourth estate and corporations suddenly teetering on an abyss that had lain wait unnoticed at their very feet. Western government behaving in exactly the ways Chinese, Russian, Third World countries are criticized over — is this our own bloodless Tienanmen Square? The often poorly understood amorphous and distributed nature of the Internet performing exactly as designed — in the early 70’s by the U.S. military. The thousands of anonymous hackers — each with varying agendas, without a doubt — but acting in concert en masse. These and more are the many lenses through which we can observe the unfolding drama — and still miss out on many nuances.
I want to first consider Assange’s stated goals (you can find them at Cryptome here). He describes “unjust systems of governance” being vulnerable as follows:
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and
paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization
of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive
“secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in
decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.
Unjust systems by their nature must conceal information; the process to do so gives rise to what he calls conspiracies, which are simply ways of hiding the information the “unjust system” is using.
Here’s what I find interesting: he looks at this problem as a computational network; reading his articles in the above PDF felt quite a bit like a number of my CS graduate courses particularly in networking and algorithms. Anyway, one way to weaken these resulting conspiracies is to degrade the quality of their information. In other words, leaks.
Wikileaks isn’t actually exposing any bonafide scandals. These are diplomatic cables, reflecting a wide range of everyday activities, normal secrets shared among a narrow band of those in the governing class but not with their constituency. But by disrupting this, this could, or so Assange hopes, result in a paradigm shift toward more transparent governments. (I want to credit zunguzungu for much of this line of thought which he covers better and in more detail in Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”.)
But it may go far beyond that. After all, there are many other players on the global field than just governments. There’s the media. There are corporations. And there’s the Internet. That’s a lot of power concentrated in a lot of places and with very different properties. And I think it’s safe to say the Internet has surprised just about everyone.
So what happened when they tried to kill Wikileaks? How the Internet has been used to keep Wikileaks alive (again, as per its original design, it’s performing nearly flawlessly) is covered here: WikiLeaks: Moving Target. The end result of trying to pull the plug on Wikileaks has been to increase its presence on the Internet and made it even more difficult to “erase”. Not just mirrored sites, but also signed exact copies of the original materials, such as from here. That genie is out of the bottle and will never be stuffed back in again.
The Internet is passing around its own information as well. For example, to help participate in a DDoS attack (which is what took down several corporations that had acted against Wikileaks), one can download a very simple program and join in the attack in minutes. The Internet can coalesce numerous people into a single effort, the example of Anonymous can be found here GLaDOS Anonymous Protest Training, Anonymous preparing for new Wikileaks effort, here Wikileaks: Anonymous stops dropping DDoS bombs, starts dropping science, here “Anonymous” Posts Video Describing “Operation Payback” In Defense Of WikiLeaks, among many other examples. The point to understand here is that Anonymous is, like the ‘nets it inhabits, a distributed and independent network of individuals acting in concert. Knock one out, another Anonymous pops up. It’s no accident that they use Vendetta’s mask in some of their works. A brief history of Operation Payback can be found here.
Turning toward the media which is being dealt some serious blows throughout this, and I don’t mean just through the threat of having the Espionage Act applied to them — nearly unheard of in this country and yet proposed by one of the more ostensibly liberal Senators, Dianne Feinstein — but also by being unavoidably confronted with the fact that they are no longer a check on state power but entirely complicit with it, which is one of the legacies of 9/11. Jay Rosen lays this out in From Judith Miller to Julian Assange which is well worth a read.
Is this what Assange intended or predicted? It’s not clear from the Cryptome articles. Only he knows for certain. But he’s rolled the dice to start the game and now it has a life and direction of its own.