Crises precipitate change.
Make no mistake: the release of information by Wikileaks – the State Department cables still standing at a mere ~1,200 of 251,287 released – with more promised for next year (target: Bank of America?) is coming off as a devastating shot by the freedom and openness that the Internet offers at the halls of entrenched power and the extremely complex chess game that makes up the way things are. Those on the power-side of the argument: governments, politicians, businesses; will be looking for figurative (or literal) blood after this is all set and done.
The gears of “justice” are already in motion against Wikileaks’ head Julian Assange. Though much like notorious gangster Al Capone being eventually busted for tax evasion because it was an easier case for the government to pursue, Mr. Assange is also being prosecuted for something that has nothing doing with the core reason why governments want him silenced. Instead of leaking information, he is being charged with rape. The rapid-fire and rapid-research world that the Internet brings us today, Mr. Assange being wanted by Interpol is quickly countered with enough smoke to make one really have to consider just what is real and what is stirred-up feelings that amount to nothing more than a smear campaign – ultimately being a well-placed diversion from the continuing secrets of the world’s balance of power being bled onto the Internet.
Given time, this will all pass. What will be next for the Internet, though?
Wikileaks may end up being both an example of the greatest possible power of the Internet when it comes to disseminating information as well as the greatest threat to its continued existence as we know it today.
By-in-large in free countries, the Internet exists in a free and open state. You pay to get in, but once you are in the potentials for what you can do, see, access, become, and believe are heretofore limitless. Trade groups representing recording artists, movie studios, software makers, and other owners of Intellectual Property have tried to stem the flow of illegally-distributed content in actions that may seem highly disruptive to those who are heavily involved in the file trading scene, but they will ultimately pale in comparison and end up seeming like nibbling at the fringe when it comes to the sweeping controls that may await us on the post-cablegate Internet.
We may very well be at the beginning of a cycle of shock-and-response that could lead to a much more regulated and controlled Internet in the not too distant future. If you would like a more in depth read about the theory, check out Shock Doctrine, but in general the principle of this shock-and-response cycle goes as follows: an idea that is seen by many as bad or unworkable or just generally not good is kept just alive enough, barely, by politicians for a long period of time – politicians who tend to obey the wishes of corporations more than that of their constituents. One day, a disaster happens. While the populace is in a state of shock and disbelief about whatever it was that just took place, the previously crazy/bad ideas that were laying around can easily be passed through a legislative body who, at the moment, is concerned with a number of other things than checking up on something as tedious as details.
There are very real examples of this doctrine in our recent history being executed to perfection. While still blindsided from the shock of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act was rammed through Congress with resounding majorities in both houses that October – the Department of Homeland Security coming a mere month later. Two gigantic pieces of legislation that would have otherwise led to heavily scrutinized public debate in Congress were quickly rushed to the desk of then President Bush, and from those acts you can draw a straight line to AT&T’s government-encouraged warrantless wiretapping and sexual molestation in the name of security theater. The examples are even more great when you turn to economics.
As for the Internet and Wikileaks, the shock of the State Department leaks (among others) could very well lead to a response that will manifest itself in the form of an end to network neutrality at best – and outright censorship at worst.
If the State Department leaks don’t come off as enough of a shock to the lay person who may be otherwise jaded and uninterested, they will certainly resonate enough with key people who can make key decisions on how the United States regulates the internet to have an effect on us all. Being unable to convince the jaded to the detailed threat of the leaks, a reliance on the media will be sought to make sure the prevailing opinion of the masses is one of outright negativity toward both Mr. Assange and Wikileaks. It’s easier to legislate against something you’re told to hate. From this theory, an unfolding of events and coverage of those events can be road mapped ridiculously easy:
- It’s not the content of the leaks, it’s the character of Mr. Assange
- It’s not leaks, it’s rape
- It’s not leaking information about the corrupt ways that the status quo is maintained, it’s an Attack on America!
- It’s not “freedom of the press” to release these documents, it’s treason
- It’s not something that has a legal solution, it’s something that should be dealt with via assassination
Once the message is hammered home, and the general populace generally believes that all things Wikileaks are bad – that this should be prevented from ever happening again – then come the suggestions and implementations of rules and law that are, at present, unpopular.
- An interpretation of a 1942 law gives the President of the United States the ability to yank computer systems off the Internet if they are deemed to be doing harm to the country in a time of crisis. This is better known as an Internet ‘kill switch’.
- Recently the Department of Homeland Security yanked 70 domains from the Internet that it determined were harmful – including a search engine for downloading illegal files that did little more than entering “using google for downloading torrents” into, well, google.
- There have been protests in Australia this past year over government plans to censor the entire Internet for the nation of 22 million from accessing pornographic material deemed ‘illegal’.
- Major American ISPs have been accused of throttling traffic to services they do not approve of, and Comcast has threatened to charge individual websites more for having the privilege to deliver content to their customers.
Enough bad ideas are out there for lawmakers to latch on to when it comes to censoring the Internet. With nearly the entirety of lawmaking bodies nationwide being made up by generations that came into their own years and years before the Internet existed as it does today, taking advantage of the lack of knowledge of these lawmakers will be key as calls for locking down the free flow of information grow only louder over the weeks and months to come.
More of this…
The US government’s panic over the WikiLeaks revelations is extending to American campuses, with Columbia University warning students they risk future job prospects if they download any of the material.
The university’s Office of Careers Services’s cautionary note drew criticism from observers, who expressed alarm that the liberal bastions of academe in the US would be complicit in restrictions on access to the documents.
Disclosure of the warning came in the wake of a government ban on employees, estimated at more than two-and-a-half million people, using work computers and other communication devices to look at diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. The federal government advised employees that, though freely available on newspaper websites as well as WikiLeaks, they officially remain classified.
The incoming Congress in January could very well find itself tasked with ruling on the continuation network neutrality in the next two years. Wikileaks could very well be causing enough fear in the hearts of the powers that be to, if not ensure the defeat of a free and open Internet, at least heavily decrease its chances of continuing on.
This is where Wikileaks morphs into a freedom of speech issue.