With every day, with every passing hour, the power of the state mobilizes against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, its titular leader. The inner processes of statecraft have never been so completely exposed as they have been in the last week. The nation state has been revealed as some sort of long-running and unintentionally comic soap opera. She doesn’t like him; he doesn’t like them; they don’t like any of us! Oh, and she’s been scouting around for DNA samples and your credit card number. You know, just in case.
None of it is very pretty, all of it is embarrassing, and the embarrassment extends well beyond the state actors – who are, after all, paid to lie and dissemble, this being one of the primary functions of any government – to the complicit and compliant news media, think tanks and all the other camp followers deeply invested in the preservation of the status quo. Formerly quiet seas are now roiling, while everyone with any authority everywhere is doing everything they can to close the gaps in the smooth functioning of power. They want all of this to disappear and be forgotten. For things to be as if Wikileaks never was.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic cables slowly dribble out, a feed that makes last year’s MP expenses scandal in the UK seem like amateur theatre, an unpracticed warm-up before the main event. Even the Afghan and Iraq war logs, released by Wikileaks earlier this year, didn’t hold this kind of fascination. Nor did they attract this kind of upset. Every politican everywhere – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Vladimir Putin to Julia Gillard has felt compelled to express their strong and almost visceral anger. But to what? Only some diplomatic gossip.
Has Earth become a sort of amplified Facebook, where an in-crowd of Heathers, horrified, suddenly finds its bitchy secrets posted on a public forum? Is that what we’ve been reduced to? Or is that what we’ve been like all along? That could be the source of the anger. We now know that power politics and statecraft reduce to a few pithy lines referring to how much Berlusconi sleeps in the company of nubile young women and speculations about whether Medvedev really enjoys wearing the Robin costume.
It’s this triviality which has angered those in power. The mythology of power – that leaders are somehow more substantial, their concerns more elevated and lofty than us mere mortals, who must not question their motives – that mythology has been definitively busted. This is the final terminus of aristocracy; a process that began on 14 July 1789 came to a conclusive end on 28 November 2010. The new aristocracies of democracy have been smashed, trundled off to the guillotine of the Internet, and beheaded.
Of course, the state isn’t going to take its own destruction lying down. Nothing is ever that simple. And so, over the last week we’ve been able to watch the systematic dismantling of Wikileaks. First came the condemnation, then, hot on the heels of the shouts of ‘off with his head!’ for ‘traitor’ Julian Assange, came the technical attacks, each one designed to amputate one part of the body of the organization.
First up, that old favorite, the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which involves harnessing tens of thousands of hacked PCs (perhaps yours, or your mom’s, or your daughter’s) to broadcast tens of millions of faux requests for information to Wikileaks’ computers. This did manage to bring Wikileaks to its knees (surprising for an organization believed to be rather paranoid about security), so Wikileaks moved to a backup server, purchasing computing resources from Amazon, which runs a ‘cloud’ of hundreds of thousands of computers available for rent. Amazon, paranoid about customer reliability, easily fended off the DDoS attacks, but came under another kind of pressure. US Senator Joe Lieberman told Amazon to cut Wikileaks off, and within a few hours Amazon had suddenly realized that Wikileaks violated their Terms of Service, kicking them off Amazon’s systems.
You know what Terms of Service are? They are the too-long agreements you always accept and click through on a Website, or when you install some software, etc. In the fine print of that agreement any service provider will always be able to find some reason, somewhere, for terminating the service, charging you a fee, or – well, pretty much whatever they like. It’s the legal cudgel that companies use to have their way with you. Do you reckon that every other Amazon customer complies with its Terms of Service? If you do, I have a bridge you might be interested in.
At that point, Assange & Co. could have moved the server anywhere willing to host them – and Switzerland had offered. But the company that hosts Wikileaks’ DNS record – everyDNS.com – suddenly realized that Wikileaks was in violation of its terms of service, and it too, cut Wikileaks off. This was a more serious blow. DNS, or Domain Name Service, is the magic that translates a domain name like markpesce.com or nytimes.com into a number that represents a particular computer on the Internet. Without someone handling that translation, no one could find wikileaks.org. You would be able to type the name into your web browser, but that’s as far as you’d get.
So Wikileaks.org went down, but Wikileaks.ch (the Swiss version) came online moments later, and now there are hundreds of other sites which are all mirroring the content on the original Wikileaks site. It’s a little bit harder to find Wikileaks now – but not terrifically difficult. Score one for Assange, who – if the news media are to be believed – is just about to be taken into custody by the UK police, serving a Swedish arrest warrant.
Finally, just a few hours ago, the masterstroke. Wikileaks is financed by contributions made by individuals and organizations. (Disclosure: I’m almost certain I donated $50 to Wikileaks in 2008.) These contributions have been handled (principally) by the now-ubiquitous PayPal, the financial services arm of Internet auction giant eBay. Once again, the fine folks at PayPal had a look at their Terms of Service (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and – oh, look! those bad awful folks at Wikileaks are in violation of our terms! Let’s cut them off from their money!
Wikileaks has undoubtedly received a lot of contributions over the last few days. As PayPal never turns funds over immediately, there’s an implication that PayPal is holding onto a considerable sum of Wikileaks’ donations, while that shutdown makes it much more difficult to to ‘pass the hat’ and collect additional funds to keep the operation running. Checkmate.
A few months ago I wrote about how confused I was by Julian Assange’s actions. Why would anyone taking on the state so directly become such a public figure? It made no sense to me. Now I see the plan. And it’s awesome.
You see, this is the first time anything like Wikileaks has been attempted. Yes, there have been leaks prior to this, but never before have hyperdistribution and cryptoanarchism come to the service of the whistleblower. This is a new thing, and as well thought out as Wikileaks might be, it isn’t perfect. How could it be? It’s untried, and untested. Or was. Now that contact with the enemy has been made – the state with all its powers – it has become clear where Wikileaks has been found wanting. Wikileaks needs a distributed network of servers that are too broad and too diffuse to be attacked. Wikileaks needs an alternative to the Domain Name Service. And Wikileaks needs a funding mechanism which can not be choked off by the actions of any other actor.
We’ve been here before. This is 1999, the company is Napster, and the angry party is the recording industry. It took them a while to strangle the beast, but they did finally manage to choke all the life out of it – for all the good it did them. Within days after the death of Napster, Gnutella came around, and righted all the wrongs of Napster: decentralized where Napster was centralized; pervasive and increasingly invisible. Gnutella created the ‘darknet’ for filesharing which has permanently crippled the recording and film industries. The failure of Napster was the blueprint for Gnutella.
In exactly the same way – note for note – the failures of Wikileaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered. Assange must know this – a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster. Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed. We’re learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.
This failure comes with a high cost. It’s likely that the Americans will eventually get their hands on Assange – a compliant Australian government has already made it clear that it will do nothing to thwart or even slow that request – and he’ll be charged with espionage, likely convicted, and sent to a US Federal Prison for many, many years. Assange gets to be the scapegoat, the pinup boy for a new kind of anarchism. But what he’s done can not be undone; this tear in the body politic will never truly heal.
Everything is different now. Everything feels more authentic. We can choose to embrace this authenticity, and use it to construct a new system of relations, one which does not rely on secrets and lies. A week ago that would have sounded utopian, now it’s just facing facts. I’m hopeful. For the first time in my life I see the possibility for change on a scale beyond the personal. Assange has brought out the radical hiding inside me, the one always afraid to show his face. I think I’m not alone.