In 1996, internet libertarian John Perry Barlow called on governments - “weary giants of flesh and steel” - to leave the internet alone. Following the diplomatic disarray caused by WikiLeaks revelations, governments would perhaps ask the same of internet activists.
Hacktivists’ reactions to the official outcry against WikiLeaks promise a challenge to state power with an intensified battle over the soul of the internet.
In “A Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace,” Barlow expressed contempt for state power: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”
Poetic and pompous, the utopian text pleads for distance. Barlow was disinterested in battling state power or revealing its true nature to citizens. Fourteen years later, an eon in internet time, elements of cyberspace actively fight the power and reveal secrets of nation states. In contrast to Barlow, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seeks confrontation and threatens governments that they can never rest.
In the combative words of Assange: “To radically shift regime behaviour we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.”
This reflects a radical shift in thinking in some quarters of cyberspace, advocating online activism to generate concrete offline implications. WikiLeaks, itself an elusive organisation, entertained the world and angered US officialdom by leaking a series of confidential US cables: In July, WikiLeaks released 77,000 documents about the US-led war in Afghanistan. In October a staggering 400,000 cables concerning US involvement in Iraq followed. The unauthorised release on November 28 of 250,000 documents - diplomatic correspondence from December 1966 through February 2010 - was broader in scope and coverage.
The cables contain unflattering descriptions of foreign dignitaries sprinkled with cynical observations and occasionally sophisticated analysis. The most compromising revelation so far is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s endorsed spying on United Nations officials.
Positive fallout from cablegate would be sound public debate in every country about the definition of national interest and foreign policy at a time when mankind is more interconnected than ever before. A negative outcome, feared by US policymakers, is that unauthorised disclosures will hamper the successful ending of drawn-out conflicts. Ten years from now, except for historians and diplomats, details of the revelations will be forgotten. For the art of diplomacy, however, it’s clear that routines of intra-state and interstate communication must adapt to a post-WikiLeaks age. More importantly, attitudes and norms vis-à-vis a decentralised internet may change fundamentally at the policymaking level with far-reaching implications for grassroots internet use.
No longer will an unfettered internet be viewed as a problem for only secretive authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa inspired by Chinese censorship. To date, it’s the existing political liberties of the democratic world and the fact that there’s no global common power that makes Assange-like figures possible in the first place. Such persons would have serious problems country-hopping in authoritarian settings.
Citizen social activism has become a tangible threat to national interests in all countries, as the secrets of the democratic world are more prone to leaks than those of the world’s authoritarians. In early December, US Senator Joseph Lieberman pressured Amazon to stop hosting WikiLeaks within its cloud of web servers. Amazon denied that political pressure motivated its decision. Naturally, a company can choose which customers to serve, but hosting clients in Barlowian cyberspace is not mere business. WikiLeaks critics question the notion of cyberspace as public space that should be open, not segregated by market leaders or hegemonic political power.
The only way that high-tech information societies, authoritarian or democratic, can stem the Wiki-tide of collaboration among amorphous collectives of strong-willed individuals is the introduction of tougher national regulations and new interstate co-operation to facilitate a more manageable and stable information order.
Global-governance of the internet is only likely among members of the democratic club. While domestic public opinion makes this next to impossible, there may emerge some pragmatic, technocratic tacit understanding between authoritarian-capitalist powers and the bureaucracies of liberal democracies to stop the most radical netizens.
Stability and security are key for both authoritarian states and democracies. Therefore, government responses to WikiLeaks may neutralise impact of the report by Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to the UN Human Rights Council, due in June 2011.