Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve been fascinated by the recent developments in the world of new media. "New media" is a much-abused phrase, but in the case of Wikileaks, the phrase is literally accurate. Wikileaks really is a new medium: the organisation is less than five years old.
This week, courtesy of Wikileaks, we learnt a great deal about the sinews of political and financial power that link the modern internet to the security and executive agencies of the contemporary nation-state. The content of these lessons has much to teach us about the state of our democratic societies.
Interestingly, Wikileaks is not really a "wiki", in the sense that Wikipedia is: it can’t be collaboratively edited and it is very far from open access.
Nor are its philosophies necessarily original: they are in fact an amalgam of the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Mill and Paine, and the 1980s and 90s techno-millenarianism of writers such as John Perry Barlow. But in its technological sophistication, its intent and most importantly its impact, Wikileaks is a recognisably new phenomenon. There have been many attempts by internet companies and media organisations to encourage whistleblowers and apply the ideas of scrutiny to monitor governments. But none have had the political impact that Wikileaks has achieved in just a few short years. Wikileaks is new — not because it is on the internet, but because it is making powerful elites in the government and media genuinely uneasy.
Wikileaks is web publisher that relies on clever encryption and distributed servers and publishing platforms. In doing so, it necessarily relies on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that crisscross the world. And because of that, Wikileaks can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET — a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.
Wikileaks is certainly more than merely a very clever whistle-blower protection and publication system. While the encryption and other information security aspects of the site are impressive, perhaps more important is that Wikileaks allows disgruntled would-be leakers to turn the power of modern information technology against the nation-states and large corporations that now rely on it.
In an ironic turn that Michel Foucault would surely have applauded, the sheer amount of information now hiding behind government and corporate firewalls makes that information increasingly vulnerable to disclosure. The current cache of Wikileaks cables being released, for instance, have all been distributed on the US government’s SIPRNET, which stands for Secret Internet Router Protocol Network. However, in this context, "secret" is something of a euphemism. As Kevin Rudd himself has pointed out, more than two million US officials have access to SIPRNET. More than 180 US agencies were signed up to SIRPNET by 2005. No wonder much of this content eventually made its way into the public domain. The wonder is that it hasn’t been leaked sooner.
Some of the sharpest thinking about what Wikileaks means has come from the intelligence community itself. US security think-tank Stratfor, for instance, points out that there is a "culture of classfication" rampant inside the US government, in which even relatively mundane documents are classified under Executive Order 13526 as "confidential" or "secret". Consequently, according to Stratfor’s Scott Sewart, "this culture tends to create so much classified material that stays classified for so long that it becomes very difficult for government employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and what truly needs to be protected."
Information probably doesn’t "want to be free", as the activist and technologist Stewart Brand famously announced but there are plenty of people who would like it to be. Some of them work in the US military, including Private First Class Bradley Manning.
The content of the Wikileaks releases so far has been devastating, not for what it says, but because it has cut through the lies, disinformation and media spin on which modern democracies increasingly depend. Many citizens will not be surprised by the dark truths that Wikileaks reveals, but they will scarcely be energised to a new optimism about their governments. That US forces violate rules of engagement to gun down innocent civilians, or that the war in Afghanistan is going badly, or that the US State Department actively spies on the UN, or that the Saudis want Iran’s nuclear facilities destroyed: none of these revelations are particularly surprising. But they tear away the veil of deceit behind which politicians and other democratic officials routinely operate in the course of their daily affairs. In the face of truth, deniability is implausible.
Much of what has been written about Wikileaks has missed this fundamental point. It is interesting that Assange himself justifies the cable releases by pointing to the lies of governments to their own people in justifying wars, writing, "there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about [just]wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies."
This is the first of two articles by Ben Eltham on Wikileaks.
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