A world after Wikileaks

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has caused outcry from governments around the world

Things will be different after Wikileaks, but not in ways we might expect, says regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange may not be Time Magazine Person of the Year for 2010 - that distinction has gone to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg - but he has certainly managed to dominate the global conversation over the past few weeks.

The reverberations of Wikileaks publication of so many confidential and secret documents will be felt for many years, and he has attracted a large band of supporters, but the support for Assange is as much about his personal situation as it is an expression of support for what Wikileaks does or proposes to do.

To properly understand the philosophy that underlies his activity or his long-term goals, people should read Aaron Bady's compelling analysis of Assange's politics, as published on the zunguzungu blog.

Bady uses a close reading of an essay by Assange on State and Terrorist Conspiracies to argue that Assange sees modern governance as a conspiracy by those with power that goes against the interests and desires of the governed, and that Wikileaks exists in order to undermine the ability of governments to communicate secretly and diminish the power of authoritarian states.

Doing this, he believes, will force openness and lead to more progressive forms of government - or at least, less repressive ones.

It will also, inevitably, lead to a response from the institutions targeted, and in the last few weeks we have seen what happens when a state feels threatened.

Although it is not pleasant neither is it surprising: governments, like other complex systems, will act to preserve themselves and seek to damage or neutralise opposition, and nothing the US or other governments have done so far is exceptional.

Net conflict

In a statement dictated to his mother from his jail cell Assange said "we now know that Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and others are instruments of US foreign policy", referring to the way in which these large companies had decided not to provide service to Wikileaks.

But nobody who has observed the growth of the internet could have been surprised by this.

Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith wrote about this back in 2006 in their excellent book Who Rules the Internet, where they pointed out that government will always go after gatekeepers and choke points in their attempts to regulate online activity.

In that same year, Visa and Mastercard refused to pass funds to the Russian music download site allofmp3.com, even though the site was legal within Russia, but that attracted little attention because it was about cheap music and not freedom of expression.

Now we face a different sort of conflict, and it appears to be one that will shape the political landscape for years to come.

In the finale of the film Ghostbusters the eponymous heroes are obliged to challenge the god Gozer, but before he appears they are told that they must "choose the form of your destructor".

Gozer, they realise, will materialise in whatever monstrous form they imagine, and Venkman tells the others not to visualise anything. Unfortunately, it is too late - Ray has already thought of "the gentlest thing he could, something that would never hurt me" - at which point a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man appears and proceeds to wreak havoc on New York.

Something similar lies behind the emergence of Wikileaks. Over the past two decades we have built the internet and the web and completed a process of digitisation that has turned most of the world's operational data into electronic form, from bank records to love letters to diplomatic cables.

Status quo

We have called forth the network age, and yet carried on in our daily lives as if nothing has really changed.

As a result we made this moment inevitable, even if it was impossible to predict the form our "destructor" would take.

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Will Wikileaks usher in a new era of control, wonders Bill Thompson

Now it has materialised as a stateless, shapeless "international new media non-profit organisation that publishes submissions of otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous news sources and news leaks", as Wikipedia describes it.

That organisation is threatened from outside by some of the most powerful states in the world, whose capacity for action is enormous. It is also challenged from the inside, as internal mails and documents, made available online on the Cryptome site reveal.

But what really matters is that the disruptive power of the internet has been conclusively demonstrated, and the old order has been provoked to respond.

This is democracy's Napster moment, the point at which the forms of governance that have evolved over 200 years of industrial society prove wanting in the face of the network, just as the business models of the recording industry were swept away by the ease with which the internet could transmit perfect digital copies of compressed music files.

Napster was neutered by court action in the US, but its failure inspired peer-to-peer services that were far harder to control. The sharing of music is now unstoppable, and Wikileaks and the organisations that come after it will ensure that the same is now true of secrets.

Of course we should never underestimate the power of the state to reinvent itself, just as modern capitalism and constitutional monarchy seem able to do.

Wikileaks has exposed the inadequacies in the way governments control their internal flow of information, and organisations dedicated to transparency and disclosure will observe the tactics used to shut it down and adapt accordingly. But the state can learn too, and has the resources to implement what it learns.

I fear that Wikileaks is as likely to usher in an era of more effective control as it is to sweep away the authoritarian regimes that Julian Assange opposes.

He may look to a day when the conspiratorial power of the state is diminished, but I think we are more likely to see new forms of government emerge that exploit the capabilities of the network age to ensure their power is undiminished.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.