Wikis, leaks and the Web today: a collision of confidence and security

In January this year, US Secretary of State Clinton delivered a thoughtful, cogent response to the threat posed by China's clampdown on their citizen's access to the Web and harassment of global Internet firms like Google in their efforts to better distribute information. Later the speech was published in Foreign Affairs, with the full weight of her argument neatly hinging upon a passage near the heart of the piece:

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks. They have expunged words, names and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.

This is sharp stuff, and entirely true and well-documented. States like Iran, India, Pakistan, and others actively monitor and block access to online information. Their government agents exploit analysis of internet traffic with immediate effect. Citizen journalism is blotted out; incriminating videos removed; protest quickly and summarily shut down at the source.

The piece then ends: "I hope that refusal to support politically-motivated censorship will become a trademark characteristic of American technology ... it should be part of our national brand ... we are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance."

As a 21st century defence of freedom of expression and thought, it was a solid, well-articulated position. Governments have no moral right to deny people access to information for purposes of political expediency or to avoid embarrassment. And US companies should not be party to such oppression of opinion or non-violent protest. Recall that old summation of Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The heady sort of ideal that revolutionaries go on to found great republics upon.

Flash-forward six months, however, and alas. It was no longer the oppressive governments of China or Iran who were under the spotlight. It was the treatment of Iraqi citizens, or Afghani farmers. And the technology in question was no longer the 'Great Firewall of China' but the public-key encrypted, BitTorrent-supported, donation- funded site WikiLeaks. And most significantly, the focus was not the treatment of our competitors security problems, but our own. Suddenly this past summer, the channel began to change. Abruptly, the US administration announced it wanted to update US surveillance laws and augment their powers, not challenge them overseas. And now US companies were petitioned to be 'good corporate citizens' in this effort, not to rail against them needlessly.

And then two weeks past, the diplomatic cables came out. A lone private, nestled in a cubicle deep in the Pentagon, motivated by little more than the youthful belief in transparency, haunted by a sense of discomfort at US foreign policy, armed with only his security clearance and some blank Lady Gaga discs, lifted the lid of Pandora's Box. And globally, governments have been playing defence every day since then. That the US Department of Defence had seen fit to give a file clerk (and thousands of other junior employees) unfettered access to this material did not seem a detail worthy of note. That one employee could remove, over the course of months, hundreds of thousands of military field reports and diplomatic dispatches on a 99-cent electronic medium from one of the world's highest security building? Also a small detail. The wagons of the state began to circle - as the leak was branded espionage, treason, sedition, even information terrorism.

Let's be clear what this is largely about. If there is one thing governments dislike, it is competition. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realms of diplomacy and intelligence. It is the business of government in these domains to control information, compartmentalize it, spin it and re-distribute it as best befits the policy of the day. WikiLeaks - and a growing constellation of other sites like it - represent a direct, grassroots challenge to that power. Worse still, in the grand global marketplace of diplomacy, secrets are very much like currency. Information gotten at great trouble and expense is coveted; it's the stock and trade. Never mind such quaint notions of a military-industrial complex. To quote Rick Moody, it's not so much a "complex" anymore, as pretty much the whole shebang

Recall Max Weber, father of the sociology of government, from his Wirtschaft und Gese, llschaft (1920):
Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret ... it hides its knowledge and action from criticism ... the concept of the 'official secret' is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude ... In facing a parliament, the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or from interest groups ... Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament-at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy's interests.

It's as true today as it was a century ago. Recall the knots that Canada's Parliament twisted itself in to examine the sponsorship scandal in Quebec. Or the Mulroney-Schrieber imbroglio. Or the Afghan detainee affair. The representatives of the public ask to see. The desks of the government go silent.

So to return to the current crisis, we have a choice. We can be distracted by the pettiness of individual reports. We can express mock-astonishment at what a troubled superpower will ask of its emissary in the midst to two wars going badly. We can mock both the messengers - Private Manning and Julian Assange - or the media - the new media struggling with new rules, old media painfully trying to stay current. We can even scoff at the world's officials, brooms out, rugs up.

Or we can see the cable gate affair for what is very likely is. That encryption is a powerful tool. That distributed mirror-hosting is lighting fast. That torrents move information quickly, efficiently, anonymously and without mediation. That micro-payment systems allow niche fund-raising and ground-up support that is tough to beat. That crowd sourcing now has visualization and data mining tools from the open source movement that are just as powerful as any corporate product. That open data, open government, and a privacy and information access process that actually works, are not ideas that are likely to vanish away any time soon.

And finally, one last thought. That maybe, just possibly, the covert collection and control of information - two cornerstones of the great rationalist bureaucracies of the 19th and 20th centuries - may be in for a very serious drubbing this century, starting now.

Rethinking Electronic Civil Disobidience

In a book published some 30 odd years ago titled ‘How Democracies Perish' the French political philosopher Jean-François Revel wrote:

Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is necessary to counter them… What we end up with in what is conventionally called Western society is a topsy-turvy situation in which those seeking to destroy democracy appear to be fighting for legitimate aims, while its defenders are pictured as repressive reactionaries.

It is this author’s contention that the recent attempts at hacktivism by the now famous WikiLeaks website and the controversy surrounding its owner Julian Assange is precisely such an attack on democracy as Revel predicted. What is even more surprising is the painful accuracy with which these attacks have been misunderstood to be acts of revolution against oppressive regimes.

This is especially true in relatively young and artificially-liberalized democracies such as India where Journalism - partly in order to save its face from the recent embarrassments and partly to divert the common man’s attention from its inherent moral corruption - has canonized Assange and his establishment and portrayed him to be the champion of a new technological media renaissance. But even in older democracies such as Britain, too much has been published in support of the WikiLeaks adventure while its criticism has been relegated to the back seat.

The irrationality and immaturity of the bias in favor of this newfangled mode of activism is revealed when one considers the message being sent by the whole WikiLeaks issue (and its media-hyped celebration) to, for example, organizations with a Jihadi persuasion. It is funny to see, that the liberal tradition in countries which are paranoid about their safety to the extent that they manually frisk high ranking diplomats of major allies are exalting the reformer-cum-revolutionary status of a person they know next to nothing about.

What is also not discussed enough in the news surrounding the whole affair is what the true import of the leaked cables is. Anyone basically acquainted with the geopolitics of the countries indicted or mentioned in the leaked cables would tell you that what is revealed in those cables is what is being talked about in diplomatic circles much more openly albeit in a more formal tone. It hardly takes a genius to figure out for example, that India is indeed a self-appointed candidate for the UNSC seat (and there is nothing wrong with that either) or that NATO countries are planning to protect Poland (that’s is precisely what NATO was created to do).

If then, the argument WikiLeaks is supporting is that Diplomats should always talk in formal, subjectively-desensitized and politically-correct, official language then it is basically tantamount to taking away the free speech of the diplomatic community - which already suffers from the official impediments of an over-neutralized language.

But most importantly of all, it is the response to the WikiLeaks by governments worldwide that has catapulted what should’ve been an easily overlooked nuisance into the ranks of major historical blunders like the Watergate scandal. Instead of having a calm and reasoned debate with members of the civil society and media, the Governments (especially the American govt.) launched themselves into attack mode against Assange and the entire order of underground Hacktivists. The redundancy of the leaks was, it seems, overshadowed by fears of what they might contain as opposed to what they did contain. It should be noted that there is a lot more messier information lying in the secret records of most major powers today and the inability of the Americans to decipher as to exactly what and how much of what was leaked was truly damaging to their repute led to their taking the overtly defensive stance.

But the American attack on Assange and the sudden rehashing of old court case against him in Sweden is as unjustified as the DDoS attacks on major financial websites by the so called “friends of WikiLeaks”. The term “Cyber-Anarchism” may sound like aural manna to the ears of some yet-to-be-disillusioned seeker of an anarchic utopia but for adults who understand the fragility of the cyber-ecosystem, the threat is more real than ever before. This eye-for-an-eye mentality of both parties involved will simply erode the protective fringes of the online-freedom that netizens around the world have carefully preserved for a decade or so.

By no means is this author denouncing activism (cyber or otherwise), he is merely stating that alternative versions of electronic civil disobedience exist which don’t threaten the politico-administrative foundations on which societies are built. Versions which demand accountability without resorting to any kind of anarchism and which actually seek accountability for acts of omission and commission. Turning the internet into a shoe-pelting party for the mildly dissatisfied will simply result in the slow and painful death of free-speech on internet. It is human nature to be fascinated with secrets but just because something is secret doesn’t necessarily mean it is important.

L’affaire Assange frequently reminds me of the day when my 4th standard classmate who had just discovered how babies came into this world used his mediocre language skills to spread this newfound and forbidden piece of information. Expectedly, the news started a mutiny of students against their parents. “How could they do something this dirty?” was one question that seemed to sum up the sentiment in the air that day. This analogy tells us, in a predictable way that the internet has reached an adolescent stage where it is particularly prone to bad influences. Any reasonable individual knows that geopolitics, international-strategy and foreign policy isn’t all unicorns and magic storks and any insistence on washing dirty laundry in open would ultimately stink up the institution of democracy.

This is not to say, however that any pragmatic notion of liberalism must come with an in-built system for repressing bad politico-strategic memories nor does it imply that the necessary evils of governing nation-states in a predominantly capitalist world should be ignored. All that is required at this stage is firstly, to infuse the idea of relevance and values within the networked ratio of consciousness of online populations of the world to the consciousness of bureaucracies which sustain them. Secondly, we need to educate people to use the powers of the internet wisely and instead of using it for nitpicking and hair-splitting critiques of governments for the sake of revolution “here and now” they must be taught to use the internet as a moderator of any relevance-to-values imbalance which might creep on our way to truly emancipatory technological solutions.

Lastly, In a world clearly divided between those who think Julian Assange is a villain from a bond movie and those who like to think of him as the “digital Gandhi” it is wise to point out that he is neither. He is perhaps little more than a younger version of himself hacking his way into the pages of human history. Governments around the world must wisen up to his accidental but insightful revelations into society, culture and the evolutionary stage of the internet, he should also be put on an international governmental payroll for investigating further into the nature and modes of cyber-activism and should be a member of every committee investigating ways to prevent and defend societies against cyber-terrorism. Needless to say he should neither be turned into a hero nor a villain and the ridiculous charges against him must be dropped.

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