How to save Julian Assange's movement from itself.
American diplomacy seems to have survived Wikileaks’s “attack on the international community,” as Hillary Clinton so dramatically characterized it, unscathed. Save for a few diplomatic reshuffles, Foggy Bottom doesn’t seem to be deeply affected by what happened. Certainly, the U.S. government at large has not been paralyzed by the leaks—contrary to what Julian Assange had envisioned in one of his cryptic-cum-visionary essays, penned in 2006. In a fit of technological romanticism, Assange may have underestimated the indispensability of American power to the international system, the amount of cynicism that already permeates much of Washington’s political establishment, and the glaring lack of interest in foreign policy particulars outside the Beltway.
Indeed, it’s not in the realms of diplomacy or even government secrecy where Wikileaks could have its biggest impact. If the organization wants to leave a positive imprint on the world, it should turn to a different mission entirely: forcing the general public to re-examine some of the organizing assumptions behind today’s Internet.
Regardless of what happens to Assange, Wikileaks has the potential to catalyze a worldwide campaign that could do for the Internet what the Greens did for the environment in the 1970s: start a much-needed conversation about the potentially corrosive impact of corporate interests on the public good, a conversation that may eventually coalesce into a broader political movement. Ironically, it’s not what Assange did, but what American companies and politicians did in response to the publication of the cables, that has given thousands of geeks a cogent alternative vision for the future of the Internet.
At the very heart of that vision lies the desire to ensure that the kind of problems that have plagued Wikileaks’s online presence since the publication of the diplomatic cables are never repeated in the future. It’s an impressive list of difficulties: Access to the Wikileaks.org domain was disrupted after its domain provider got cold feet; Amazon famously booted Wikileaks off its servers; PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard cut their ties to Wikileaks as well, significantly hampering its ability to raise donations. Bank of America went further, refusing to process any Wikileaks-related transactions, even prompting an angry editorial from The New York Times. It is also important not to forget that Wikileaks could have been in a considerably worse position if some other Internet companies—Facebook, Twitter, Google—chose to behave like Amazon and PayPal. Google could have made the text of the cables—or even any pages bearing the word “Wikileaks”—disappear from its search index. Twitter could have followed the path of Bank of America and refused to publish (or index) any tweets containing the words “Wikileaks,” “Assange,” or “Cablegate.” Facebook could have banned access to Wikileaks fan pages for anyone with an American IP address, as it did with the “Everybody Draw Muhammed Day” page for users in India and Pakistan.
While some of the companies that targeted Wikileaks were subject to direct political pressure from American politicians, others seem to have volunteered—a decision that must have been easy to make given all the Wikileaks-bashing in Congress. Wikileaks survived these betrayals; but the myth that today’s Internet is the best of all possible worlds didn’t.
That the Internet is heavily dominated by for-profit companies, and therefore subject to influence from governments, is not a ground-breaking discovery. Who Controls the Internet?—the 2006 book by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu—made a very reasonable argument that as long as most Internet activities depend on for-profit intermediaries, governments would be able to indirectly establish control over cyberspace by pressuring these middlemen.
Until Cablegate, this situation, while theoretically problematic, was something that most geeks accepted as some kind of necessary evil inherent to capitalism. It seemed unlikely that Amazon or PayPal would bow down to pressure from the governments of Vietnam, Azerbaijan, or Tunisia (the moral resolve of Facebook and Google, which had ads to sell in these very markets, was a different case). Likewise, it seemed unlikely that democratic governments would want to bully the intermediaries rather than pursue their grievances via the legal system.
Any deviant behavior by companies was supposed to be corrected by having Internet companies sign on to self-regulating industry agreements like the Global Network Initiative (GNI). Sadly, most technology giants—Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Skype—did not follow the lead of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo and declined to join GNI; there is no indication that they will in the near future (in a bizarre explanation of its reluctance to join, Facebook—currently valued at $50 billion—said it was just a small company that couldn’t afford to pay the $250,000 joining fee).
What Wikileaks has revealed is that it doesn’t take all that much pressure (or even controversy) to force Internet intermediaries to drop clients that are not on Hillary Clinton’s Christmas card mailing list. Thus, one way to ensure that the next Wikileaks is not mistreated by its business partners is to minimize the power of intermediaries and, preferably, make them immune to political and financial pressure. This objective, as much as the desire to boost transparency and reduce government secrecy, is what presently unites many of Assange’s technology-savvy supporters. And such geeky efforts to remake the Internet are likely to pay off in the long run even if Wikileaks’s transparency drive falters.
Remarkably, the Cablegate saga has already spurred (or boosted) several nonprofit initiatives that aspire to provide the kind of online services that are essential to a controversial project like Wikileaks—and do so in a more decentralized and resilient fashion. A handful of projects bearing unashamedly geeky names like P2P DNS, Project IDONS, and 4LW seek to create an alternative system for managing domain names that would be less pliable to political interference. Another new project—called Unhosted—seeks to decouple applications that run in the cloud from the user data that they store or generate; the idea is that if the data is stored in a distributed and encrypted manner across a number of unrelated servers, it may reduce the power of whoever owns the app. BitCoin, another novel initiative, seeks to create a decentralized currency system that has no need for any central administration.
So far, this nascent global movement is running on little else but the sheer enthusiasm of the techies involved. This may be enough to find theoretical solutions to the technical problems encountered by Wikileaks. From a purely engineering perspective, designing a decentralized search engine, a micro-blogging service, or a social networking site that could compete with Google may not be all that challenging. But getting those sites to achieve the same level of public prominence—and especially to generate the level of traffic that usually accompanies such prominence—will be much harder.
Those trying to re-imagine the Internet in the wake of the Cablegate controversy have no choice but to work with a select few social media giants, pushing them to adhere to some rules rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The only way to do this would be to add an explicit political dimension to their work; quick technological fixes, while helping to eliminate some of the choke points present in today’s Internet infrastructure, are not by themselves enough.
There already exists a global political movement that could help the Wikileaks-inspired techies to accomplish some of these goals. The so-called Pirate Parties that have recently sprung up all over the world in the past few years, with an explicit objective of changing national copyright laws, are natural allies of the movement started by Assange. There is already some collaboration between the Wikileaks crowd and the Pirates: The Swiss cell of the Pirate Party hosts Wikileaks’s site at Wikileaks.ch.
A closer alignment between the two would afford Wikileaks and its supporters with a vehicle for participation in traditional politics. And, if Wikileaks were to abandon its special brand of techno-anarchism and adopt the cause of building a decentralized, commons-based Internet infrastructure—in order to preserve the virtues of the Internet for future generations—it would stop alienating some of its potential supporters by appearing anti-American and even anti-diplomacy.
As we are likely to discover in the course of the next few months, Wikileaks is only as good as its last leak—and it’s unlikely that it will run into another Bradley Manning any time soon. The fight for transparency is an important one—but it’s probably better served by many of the regional Wikileaks clones that have recently hit the Internet or the more transparent and decentralized model of the soon-to-launch OpenLeaks. Assange has already made his big point about government secrecy. Now he should use his cult-like status in the tech community to campaign for something else instead.
Evgeny Morozov is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.