The Empire Strikes Back

John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is:  “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.  There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”

It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear:  1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.

While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government?  The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. 

Does the U.S. Government and its allies look to the majesty of the law?  No.  They use all sorts of extra-legal intimidation and raw power plays like forcing WikiLeaks offline, interfering with its finances and fomenting personal smears.  The Government presumably believes that shock-and-awe tactics will force WikiLeaks into submission and send a needed warning to other potential critics.  The response not only betrays American legal traditions, it represents a profound misunderstanding of the power of distributed online networks.

The bullying has been rather extraordinary over the past few days.  In response to Senator Lieberman, Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its servers.  PayPal and MasterCard suddenly made a unilateral determination that WikiLeaks was doing something illegal, and refused to act as conduits for donations to WikiLeaks.

And then there are those fishy-smelling rape charges brought by Swedish prosecutor.  It all sounds rather trumped up -- international extradiction for an interrogation about a rape charge based on failing to wear a condom?  It doesn't help that one of the accusers reportedly has ties to the CIA. The rape allegation (but no formal legal charges of rape) catapulted Assange to the top of the Interpol's most-wanted list of criminals.  In trying to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon’s henchmen merely raided his psychiatrist’s office.  This time, it would appear, a whole apparatus of international governments and compliant corporations has been mobilized to attempt to isolate, disable and discredit WikiLeaks and Assange. 

A U.S. State Department official actually warned Columbia University students not to post updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook lest it damage their career prospects.  The Congressional Research Service, charged with giving Congress the best, most reliable information, has been banned from using the WikiLeaks disclosures in its reports.

This is how a confident, mature democratic government behaves?

What we are witnessing, writes the Guardian’s Naughton, is “the petulant screaming of emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the net.”  He continues:

One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other NATO governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.

The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this.

The unmasking of official deceits and insulated privilege is a fearsome spectacle. 

But here’s the funny/tragic thing:  Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised the open Internet and free information flows earlier this year in a memorable speech.  When President Obama visited China in 2009, said Clinton, he “defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become.  He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.”

Now we see what actually happens in the USA when citizens can learn of unpleasant truths and information can flow freely.  The truth-teller is viciously attacked, the market/state duopoly closes ranks, and the “forbidden” information is locked down.

These developments should give any freedom-loving Internet user pause about the safety and freedom of “the cloud,” the next frontier of computing.  If user freedoms in the cloud are going to be dependent upon the unilateral whims of Amazon, PayPal, Comcast and AT&T – each of whom might summarily eject any dissenter who becomes politically influential or kowtow to a bully like Senator Lieberman – then we might as well put the Bill of Rights into the paper shredder right now.

The U.S. Government has shown contempt for the rights of citizens to know what their government is doing, and to be capable of open deliberation and exercise some measure of accountability.  The Government's clumsy powerplays have now provoked a wider conflagration.  Today hackers staged a massive denial of service attack against MasterCard in apparent retribution for its refusal to convey payments to WikiLeaks.  Also attacked by anonymous cyber-vandals:  the Swiss bank that froze Assange’s bank account and Senator Lieberman’s website. 

In August 2002, I was the rapporteur for an Aspen Institute conference called “The Rise of Netpolitik:  How the Internet is Changing International Politics and Diplomacy.” [pdf file] The conference was prescient in addressing the then-nascent conflicts between open networks of individuals and centralized, command-and-control government bureaucracies.  Here’s one excerpt from the report:

[Waring] Partridge lamented that the State Department, as a powerful government agency with formal authority, cannot readily participate in freewheeling Internet conversations.  As a result, nonstate actors – Seattle protesters, land mine activists, Burmese dissidents, Rwandan exiles – are able to dominate Internet discussions and exploit online venues as important tools of soft power.  The State Department and other official sources are left on the sidelines.

….[T]he challenge facing U.S. decision makers is a challenge of learning to listen to what nontraditional information sources are saying.  “My favorite quote, said Andrès Font, director of analysis and forecasting at Fundación AUNA in Spain, “is from Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt.  He said that ‘the denial of complexity is the beginning of failure’.”

By this standard, the U.S. Government is on a path toward abject failure.  Not only has it not learned to listen to what people say on the Internet, it doesn’t really care.  Instead it has declared war on WikiLeaks.  This could easily escalate into a war on the open Internet itself.  That's not a confrontation that any responsible democratic government should welcome. 

Update:  The focus on WikiLeaks has unfortunately eclipsed much of the reporting about what is actually contained in the diplomatic cables beyond high-level gossip.  Fortunately, the crowdsourcing website reddit is poring through the cables to bring to light some of the more outrageous substantive revelations that the mainstream media has not given much attention to.  Worth a look.