Anonymous' call to arms, larger version here
I lead with Anonymous' plea for volunteers to fight for Julian Assange/Wikileaks because it uses a rhetoric that represents an important crossing point in the emerging brawl between the network of leakers and a number of nation-states.
Anonymous speaks of war.
No, it's not war in the traditional sense of guns and bloodied limbs, but in broken secrets, encrypted "insurance" files, arrest warrants, censorship, financial seizures and even calls for blood, it's taking on all the dimensions of a go-for-broke struggle between two rapidly evolving sides.
For those of us who aren't pro-wikileaks but are also, in the interest of a free, open society, anti-anti-Wikileaks, the dimensions of the conflict seem alarming. I, for one, can see both the wisdom in the Guardian's defense of media using the cables and in Democracy in America's argument that stable institutions play a role in a free society.
But, however chaotic, the "infowar" is not incomprehensible. Technology may have changed drastically, but the basics of human conflict have not.
The fight is evolving by the hour, as Wikileaks morphs to adapt to its attackers and various parts of the international political and business communities pile on the pressure. What follows is an attempt to understand the sides, the struggle and the dynamics, in the hopes that the rest of us may learn what the hell's emerging from the maelstrom.
Wikileaks (and friends) — We'll start with the challenger, as it were. Wikileaks is an international, non-profit network dedicated to the divulging of secrets. While it touts its mission as simply "to bring important news and information to the public," its four major leaks so far (video of the slaying of journalists and civilians by the US military, documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the cables) have primarily targeted the U.S. government.
Interestingly, the latest release, of leaked diplomatic cables, seemed at first the least explosive of Wikileaks' volleys at the status quo. While it did reveal a number of despicable actions (trying to quell German prosecution of CIA kidnappers) others were just gossip (Qaddafi's Ukranian nurse) or even laudable (attempts to scale back Pakistan's nuclear arsenal).
However, as I wrote last week, the implications are huge, as secret diplomatic messages are a key pillar of the basic way nation-states operate. Every nation-state. This accounts for the surprisingly international effort to smack WIkileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, squarely.
Wikileaks' strength lies in its dispersion and its ability to cause a fair deal of chaos simply by releasing information. A heavily-encrypted "insurance" file has already been so widely distributed that it's unlikely Wikileaks' opponents could prevent its release, and, according to the organization, allies have set up 507 mirror sites (and counting).
Aligned with Wikileaks are significant parts of the communities of hackers and open-source advocates it grew out of, some of whom have become quite militant in their love of Assange and readiness to strike back at Wikileaks' opponents. The Swiss Pirate Party quickly jumped to give Wikileaks a haven, proving that some purchase in existing political systems can be a handy thing.
More loosely aligned are a number of more traditional media organizations it has often cooperated with in its releases, who see in the censorious attacks on their occasional partner a canary in the proverbial coal mine. These outlets might not share Anonymous' love of Assange, but, in a reverse of the nation-states' own fears, the emerging implications of the war leave them unwilling to see Wikileaks crushed.
Wikileaks' endgame doesn't seem particularly clearly defined. It obviously wants an end to the level of secrecy governments currently operate under, but it's fairly amorphous what form that would actually take. Conceivably, at this point its actions are as much defensive as anything else — intended to maintain its existence and batter the governments (and allied businesses) enough that they back off.
The Gov(s) - That term doesn't really cover the forces arraying against Wikileaks, but it'll do for now. At this point, it's not longer just the United States, either. Sweden wants Assange arrested, ostensibly on rape charges. Interpol's issued an alert. The UK is drafting up a warrant. Switzerland has frozen the bank account meant for his legal defense.
Aligned fairly strongly with the governments is business, both new and old. Paypal no longer accepts donations to Wikileaks, Amazon kicked Wikileaks off after the site took haven there to escaped denial-of-service attacks from pro-Gov hackers. Twitter is undecided about whether it will let Wikileaks' account stay up, but rigorously denies it has kept the #wikileaks tag from trending.
The measures have become brutally heavy-handed, in some cases, with the government warning federal employees not to read or post anything about Wikileaks (because having underinformed employees is a brilliant tactic) and, before it was quickly retracted, this even extended to students at Columbia University.
For the Govs, the threat seems to be primal enough to unify governments with differing philosophies and goals. They all need some level of informational secrecy. Businesses, as well, despite their influence, need the governments' legal sanction to operate smoothly and likely aren't happy about Assange's vow that Wikileaks' next target is financial documents.
I've heard a number of people express disappointment that tech businesses (Amazon, Paypal) seem to be lining up on this side. But this isn't really surprising, as Big Tech is still big business. Their purpose is to make money. If you were a tech CEO and faced with the option between fighting a costly legal battle to protect someone who might leak your bank records or giving the government what it wanted, which would you choose?
The Govs' endgame is to restore the status quo antebellum, with leaks limited to occasional outbursts within more traditional media, more easily contained and less damaging to day-to-day operations, be they fair or foul. Business, likewise, wants to make money hand over fist with the help of new technology, but still wants to profit from the secrecy and protections the status quo assures it.
The hope is that between financial and legal pressure, Wikileaks will buckle and with its metaphorical head upon the gate, a warning will be sent to others about the costs of setting off such informational explosions.
The world isn't ethereal yet I've heard quite a bit about how more and more activities (socializing, financial transactions, data) are shifting online, and physical barriers are rapidly decreasing in importance. The rise of "the cloud" as the much-touted next big thing in computing exemplifies this, though it's telling that some are now recognizing the drawbacks to such a set-up, as the businesses that dispense some of the web's most basic services emerge not as benevolent guardians but self-interested actors in their own right.
While the virtual shift is happening, to some extent, the WikiWar has shown that even the most ethereal of networks have some anchor in the old world. This is because the Internet is not a magic heaven from which manna reins down but the sum total of a shit-ton of hardware around the world, with its favorite services run by a mish-mash of businesses and non-profits. Those businesses do have a presence that can be targeted, just as people can be arrested or forced to flee a country.
The "none of the old borders matter" crowd might want to take a lesson from this; while Wikileaks is unbowed, it is nonetheless bloodied and doesn't look like it anticipated the degree to which it could be targeted. On that note...
Diminished in power doesn't mean powerless Related to the above point, how often have you heard that nation-states are fading in power, a thing of the past compared to multinational companies and networks. While national power certainly isn't as dominant as it once was, especially in control over information, it's not without resources. Nations possess plenty of ability to make life quite unpleasant for networks, especially by targeting all those non-ethereal factors like finances and people.
On a side note to this, at the 2009 Gov 2.0 Summit I remember a brief moment of horror at all the cyberwarrior talk of "people as weapons," to which the obvious question is "weapons for what? wielded by whom?" We may be about to find out.
Leaderless resistance still loves leaders "The most successful international troll of all time," Anonymous dubs Assange. The tongue-in-cheek LOL aspect aside, there's something sublime about a faceless, leaderless organization extolling, well, a leader. Wikileaks itself features Assange front and center in a banner asking, in fine wartime tradition, for his supporters to "Keep Us Strong."
The fact is, whether Julian Assange is killed, arrested, chokes on a pretzel, retires to Cancun or gets the Nobel Frickin' Peace Prize, this is now much larger than he (wars tend to get that way).
All the same, while the hacker culture and futurists love to talk about unbeatable leaderless resistance, it's noteworthy that enough of the old culture is in them to love looking up to a leader. I said earlier in the post that the essentials of human conflict don't really change. We are social creatures, and so require another of our own to serve as symbol of our struggles.
So Assange has remained a flashpoint, either presented as a demon (witness more extreme nationalists ludicrously dubbing him a terrorist) or hero of tomorrow. Sadly, as the war mentality seems to be growing, there is little doubt that Assange the symbol will overshadow the actual human in no time at all, each side pigeonholing events to fit their view, because...
Battle lines are being drawn The Govs see themselves as under a vital threat, even if few but the more tempermental have actually used the word "war." Anonymous jumped right in, enthusiastically. This is, one senses, the battle they've been waiting for.
Something happens when this step is made, when each side views themselves as locked into conflict, 'til ultimate victory. Even those of us who go for "anti-anti-Wikileaks" are being forced to respond to an attack, stake out a position, we get uneasy as events move faster than people; a deeply inhuman process.
Wars, even nonphysical ones, demand action even as they crush nuance, roughly compelling allegiance among the reluctant to one side or another. This makes some sense, especially when threat is involved — you can always pick who you hate the least, after all — but it always, always has some nasty consequences, and it only fuels the...
Stalemate Because that's where this conflict is heading. The Govs can hit Wikileaks enough to make life uncomfortable and unpredictable. But it creates enough enemies doing so, and its opponent is so dispersed, that a resolution proves impossible. Likewise, Wikileaks and its allies can disrupt the Govs, sometimes badly, but can never bring them to their knees.
What is victory? Neither quite knows, I think, and that makes it all the more likely to slug on. The Govs, deep down, want a level of old control that will never return, while Wikileaks (and friends!) subconsciously want a level of transparency that simply isn't here yet (and may never be). What each wants the other cannot concede.
If we want to take the war analogy to its end, the conflict dynamic reminds me most of World War I: a much-anticipated conflict triggered by a seemingly minor incident, with the true believers on every side sure of a quick victory, followed by a long, brutal stalemate as every side proves wrong. In the end, the landscape emerging from battle proves to be what no one expected. Or wanted.
I might be wrong, of course, we may see some sort of truce relatively quickly, one side may score an early coup. But I doubt it. I have a feeling this is one war that will be with us for a long time to come.