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Wikileaks: Infowar

It feels like a long time since I posted about Wikileaks five days ago. Things have gotten pretty serious, pretty fast.

It’s a complex business, and unsurprisingly, the main media channels aren’t keeping up. That’s part of the point, actually – d3vo commented to me in email that what’s driving the Wikileaks furore is the failure of the media over the last two decades. I think it’s undeniable that he’s right. Wikileaks has the power it does because the fourth estate has become part of the power apparatus; it is the culmination of the idea that distributed communications technology itself forms a fifth estate to keep the other four in check. Dylan Horrocks wrote a powerful open letter to journalists imploring them to step up and cover this effectively – definitely worth a read.

From my perspective, the main line of the story is the U.S-led assault against Wikileaks. It is many-pronged and conducted through back-door pressure or through outright illegality. Assange and his team have been preparing for this for a while and are fully prepared to exploit the internet to make a laughing stock of these shutdown attempts. But still, the scope of the attacks is shocking.

Greenwald gives a good overview. In just a few days, private companies and banks have withdrawn Wikileaks’ DNS record, site and file hosting, and bank and payment accounts. All of these have cited breaches of “terms of use”, while giving other clients a pass for the same sins. All are the result of backroom pressure, whether imposed from without or conducted voluntarily in solidarity with the wishes of power.

As Greenwald points out: Wikileaks has broken no laws. It has done nothing illegal.

More: sex charges against the face of Wikileaks. Charlie Stross goes over the evidence and makes it seem like these are trumped-up, to say the least; certainly the fact that charges were levelled, then withdrawn, then levelled again is cause for doubt. [EDIT: subsequent post about this]

And of course prominent political voices in the US openly using the word “assassination” in respect of Assange, or alluding that way with phrases like “any means necessary”.

This is a taste of a new kind of war – an information war, conducted on two fronts: within the global infrastructure, and within the court of public opinion. There will be more of these. (Some might predict that we’re heading towards a state of perpetual infowar. Lets hope not.)

This war is happening RIGHT NOW. It will have huge consequences not just for Wikileaks but for every organization that speaks up against power. Right now, the USA and other govts are training themselves to control information dissent. These lessons will not be forgotten. The next organization to make itself a target is unlikely to have the resources or wide support of Wikileaks – and it will be hard-pressed to survive this kind of assault.

Here’s another aspect of that infowar: the botnet. Wikileaks was hit hard by a botnet, which is a global network of infected “zombie” computers. Ordinary home computers with a virus are secretly using their internet connections and computing time to serve the goals of the botnet; mom-and-pop at home just wonder why their computer runs a bit slow sometimes. Usually botnets just send spam, but this one has been trying to destroy Wikileaks by overloading it. In the linked article it says this botnet wasn’t particularly large, but the possibility is certainly there that it was deployed by a state actor, perhaps even the US itself, to shut down Wikileaks.

Think about that for a second. There is a distinct possibility that right now your mum’s computer has been secretly weaponized by the United States of America.

(No, seriously. Here’s a 2008 article in the Air Force Journal saying that the USA should invest in a botnet. This response to that article says that if intelligence agencies don’t have botnets already, they really should. Google will reveal many more such discussions.)

If you’re only gonna read one thing about Wikileaks and related issues, then, make it this piece by Clay Shirky. Here’s the bit that both Dylan H and I identified as the money quote:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want

What’s going on with this matters. It matters far more than the latest juicy revelations in the diplomatic cables – those are, and always were, a sideshow. Really at stake is the landscape for international information freedom.

So, even more than usual, don’t accept the mainstream media framing of the Wikileaks story. There’s more going on, and there’s far too much at stake.

{ 7 } Comments

  1. china shop | December 8, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this.

  2. Jon | December 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I’d written a reply to this already, but the internet ate it (off topic: is “the internet ate my homework” the new excuse for kids everywhere?).

    I find it interesting that Barack Obama hasn’t said anything about this. It seems the US is letting Hilary Clinton take the lead in persecuting Wikileaks. I imagine it’s due to Obama not being able to backtrack on the quote I mentioned previously. I’ll repeat it again:
    “this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known”.

    I’m reminded of “A Man for All Seasons”, and particularly the quote from it “The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely”. In that play, we see what happened to Sir Thomas More when he tried to use the law to defend his defiance against his King. I can’t help but wonder how it will play out in modern times.

    Recent rumours are that the US is already in talks with Sweden about extraditing Assange on espionage charges:
    http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/assange-wanted-by-us-for-espionage-offences-20101208-18ouj.html

  3. Derek | December 9, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Seems Anonymous has joined in on the side of Wikileaks,
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/105954-Anonymous-Declares-Infowar-on-Wikileaks-Opponents

  4. 2trees | December 9, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Yes anonymous has struck. This from the guardian (don’t get me started on the choice of name) “newspaper”.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/08/operation-payback-mastercard-website-wikileaks

    The last line is good. DDoS is illegal. So who started the first DDos against wikileaks? Is this also not illegal?

  5. morgue | December 9, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Ah, the anonymous of 4chan – your go-to source for both LOLcats making rape jokes and conscientious social activism.

    I gotta wonder what historians are going to make of this. (Though I guess things could be even weirder in future.)

  6. Joe Murphy | December 9, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to an Anon retrospective in a few years.

    Great article, Morg.

  7. Derek | December 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    For those who don;t want to be Anonymous, there’s always Avaaz

    http://www.avaaz.org/en/wikileaks_petition/97.php?cl_tta_sign=2a322dc6fbf48389e0da2fc0c8a3b90c