net.wars: Open diplomacy
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 December 2010
Probably most people have by now lived through the embarrassment of having a (it was intended to be) private communication made public. The email your fingers oopsishly sent to the entire office instead of your inamorata; the drunken Usenet postings scooped into Google's archive; the direct Tweet that wound up in the public timeline; the close friend your cellphone pocket-dialed while you were trashing them.
Most of these embarrassments are relatively short-lived. The personal relationships that weren't already too badly damaged recover, if slowly. Most of the people who get the misdirected email are kind enough to delete it and never mention it again. Even the stock market learns to forgive those drunken Usenet postings; you may be a CEO now but you were only a frat boy back then.
But the art of government-level diplomacy is creating understanding, tolerance, and some degree of cooperation among people who fundamentally distrust each other and whose countries may have substantial, centuries-old reasons why that is utterly rational. (Sometimes these internecine feuds are carried to extremes: would you buy from a store that filed Greek and Turkish DVDs in the same bin?) It's hardly surprising if diplomats' private conversations resemble those of Hollywood agents, telling each person what they want to hear about the others and manoeuvring them carefully to get the desired result. And a large part of that desired result is avoiding mass destruction through warfare.
For that reason, it's hard to simply judge Wikileaks' behavior by the standard of our often-expressed goal of open data, transparency, accountability, and net.freedoms. Is there a line? And where do you draw it?
In the past, it was well-established news organizations who had to make this kind of decision – the New York Times and the Washington Post regarding the Pentagon Papers, for example. Those organizations, rooted in a known city in a single country, knew that mistakes would see them in court; they had reputations, businesses, and personal liberty to lose.
Wikileaks wasn't *exactly* predicted by Internet pioneers, but it does have its antecedents and precursors. Before collaborative efforts – wikis – became commonplace on the Web there was already the notion of bypassing the nation-state to create stores of data that could not be subjected to subpoenas and other government demands. There was the Sealand data bunker. There was physicist Timothy May's Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, which posited that, "Crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded."
Note, however, that a key element of these ideas was anonymity. Julian Assange has told Guardian readers that in fact he originally envisioned Wikileaks as an anonymous service, but eventually concluded that someone must be responsible to the public.
Curiously, the strand of Internet history that is the closest to the current Wikileaks situation is the 1993-1997 wrangle between the Net and Scientology, which I wrote about for Wired in 1995. This particular net.war did a lot to establish the legal practices still in force with respect to user-generated content: notice and takedown, in particular. Like Wikileaks today, those posting the most closely guarded secrets of Scientology found their servers under attack and their material being taken down and, in response, replicated internationally on mirror sites to keep it available. Eventually, sophisticated systems were developed for locating the secret documents wherever they were hosted on a given day as they bounced from server to server (and they had to do all that without the help of Twitter. Today, much of the gist is on Wikipedia. At the time, however, calling it a "flame war with real bullets" wasn't far wrong: some of Scientology's fiercest online critics had their servers and/or homes raided. When Amazon removed Wikileaks from its servers because of "copyright", it operated according to practices defined in response to those Scientology actions.
The arguments over Wikileaks push at many other boundaries that have been hotly disputed over the last 20 years. Are they journalists, hackers, criminals, or heroes? Is Wikileaks important because, as NYU professor Jay Rosen points out, journalism has surrendered its watchdog role? Or because it is posing, as Techdirt says, the kind of challenge to governments that the music and film industries have already been facing? On a technical level, Wikileaks is showing us the extent to which the Internet can still resist centralised control.
A couple of years ago, Stefan Magdalinski noted the "horse-trading in a fairly raw form" his group of civic hackers discovered when they set out to open up the United Nations proceedings - another example of how people behave when they think no one is watching. Utimately governments will learn to function in a world in which they cannot trust that anything is secret, just as they had to learn to cope with CNN (PDF)
Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).