Over the course of the last week it has become increasingly clear to me that Wikileaks is going to beome the case for studying the questions of internet governance. As many commentators have already noted what Napster was to the music industry and more broadly and importantly copyright law and circumvention practices, Wikileaks will be to the controversy between nation-states, free speech, and power on the internet. While I think it is always to easy to understand this in terms of that, and drawing analogies of this kind can often obscure more than they reveal, if I had to place a bet, this seems like the important case, and some of the similarities are particularly revealing.
For some time now most of the discourse about the ways in which nation states go about governing the net, at least in terms of governments which articulate free speech as a core value has centered around two issues, child pornography (how can we keep this kind of content off the net, or related how do we protect children against pornography in general) or the copyright question (how can we protect the interests of copyright holders against digital piracy). To be sure there are many other conversations that have been had, but these two dominate most of the dialogue. The Wikileaks “threat” though has always been out there, and while governments were certainly aware of it, considering the possible threats, this conversation was certainly not the primary focus of legislating the internet. Even following 9/11 and the increasing securitization practices, dailogue was still focused on monitoring and surviellance (privacy versus security).
Enter Wikileaks. As you can see from the map, it was already something I was planning on writing about, a substantial example from which I wanted to draw (grey boxes on the bottom left represent example cases). And whatever the outcome of the current WIkileaks events, I think it is now pretty clear that it will have substantial effects, and is a useful example for explaining the current state of internet governance. (It is more effective to pursue corporate means for removing interent content than legal ones.)
A few observatons here:
-Wikileaks is just the first case. Other organizations will certainly follow suit. While the technical infrastructure of Wikileaks is fairly complicated (one has to be knowledgeable and technically adept) the capital structure is fairly small. It will not be long before we see other versions, which “improve” on Wikileaks. (Napster yielded, Limewire, yielded Bit Torrent, which in some sense yielded iTunes.)
-It is probably telling that “cablegate” is the issue which pushed the Wikileaks versus nation states (in this particular case the United States) over the edge. While there was some “controversy” following “Collateral Murder” it was relatively small compared to the recent response. And I don’t think it is because the release of the cables necessarily puts Americans at harm, these were not “Top Secret” documents, they may or may not actually put innocent people at risk, that has yet to be seen, but this strikes me as a red-herring. There is something more at work here, a sense that governmentality itself if being threatened, that the conflict is assymetrical (the same way that guerilla warfare has been called “unethical” or “dirty.”)
-Although WIkileaks has certainly had an effect on other governments, see Kenya, I think it is important that in this case they are put in conflinct with the United States, the country with perhaps the greatest influence over the internet, abliet indirectly through international agreements, corporate influence, or international internet regulatory groups.
-I think it is also interesting that the more Assange has become a spokesperson for Wikileaks the more attention it gets, as if the mainstream media (or mainstream discourse) can only understand an organization to the extent that it has a singular head. Don’t know what to quite make of this yet.
Needless to say I will be writing much more here over the coming months about Wikileaks. Although I have been focusing on the question of cryptography (see earlier posts), at this point I am considering placing that writing on hold and spending more time on Wikileaks (I just find it more interesting to deal with the highly contemporary, even if it is harder to maintain critical distance).