Wikileaks – fragments of global disorder


Original post in Italian

The historical moment in which Wikileaks (WL) acts is decisive: – it’s the moment of the crisis of the United States’ military, political, cultural and technological hegemony.

The fall of the second Wall of the 20th century (‘Wall’ Street) replicates the calls    for glasnost (“openness”) and perestrojka (“change”) because, even if within its   neoliberalist characterization, democratic ideology has experienced a degeneration.

Reforming the system is the imperative, United States’ planetary overstretching     reaches its limits from Iraq to Latin America; the executive power is weak and safeguarded by those who long for a reactionary, fundamentalist and authentically “American” resolution of the ideological crisis.

In this scenery, already complex on its own, a specter is starting to roam around,   whispering in the ears of whoever it meets: “information in revolt will be writing  history.”

‘Specter’ also seems to us the most appropriate term to describe Assange’s character, both in regard to his physical appearance and for the elusiveness with which he was able to evade international police forces and secret service agencies for quite some time.

Still the WL issue – of which a lot of chapters still need to be written – produces extremely concrete aftershocks, capable of causing deep fractures in the traditional networks of the global news system, in these days crossed by movements of breakdown, decomposition and reconstruction. Fractures that represent a point of no return, expanding themselves 360° and not one-way.

Medium is the message

Let’s clear the ground from misunderstandings. These fragmentations have little or no relation to the contents exposed by communications leaked from the US’ embassies around the world. Much of the news which WL made public among millions of people are unessential (and well-known to the insiders) details on the leaning and the path of Washington’s foreign policy.

That Italian energy policy is a bitter pill for the US, and that it also is in this way one should read Rome’s approach, first towards Russia and then towards Libya, is no news for anyone since the hostilities between the czar Putin and the Ukrainian government leaders began. Nor are the ENI interests in the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline casual.

That the embrace between Europe and its transatlantic cousin has become less warm and more formal in recent years, and that instead the deployment of the European integration processes – with the fading of their anti-soviet role – represents a concern for the US administrations since 1989, is a traceable fact in any international relations history manual of acceptable quality.

That the attacks against Google of some months ago would stem from the highest spheres of the Chinese government was testified by the target against which they were directed, their frequency, their range and, more in general, the international context in which they were at work. Not only because, since some time by now, the cybersphere is becoming a privileged battleground in the dialectics between the great powers, assuming bigger and bigger weight in the state defense budgets, but also because an ever increasing situation of antagonism between the two bigger global competitors is in development – something which is making unthinkable the presence of a player like Big G in Beijing’s backyard.

WL has to be examined with more ambivalent lenses (which is necessary to start understanding the phenomenon in all its complexity), leaving out deceitfully subjective and specialist perspectives, without forgetting (still retaining the due question marks) that for millions of people today’s mantle of formality which envelops yesterday’s commonly known facts represents a notable gap.

In the same way the barycenter of transparency (that Internet has been moving for several years in a completely asymmetrical way in favour of those who runs the global politics and economy) moved towards the threshold of the sancta sanctorum of US embassies, and this represents a quantum leap (even more in the digital age): an uncovered cauldron which, unhinging one of the distinctive features of diplomatic communication, represents a dangerous anomaly.

But quantum leaps like these are ambivalent: the meaning which they could assume is not defined a priori; it is a match which is still to be played. The billiard ball has been thrown among the others: even the black eight ball might end in the pocket.

First of all: what is WL?

This term cannot just stand anymore for the homonym organization directed by Julian Assange; we should rather refer to a metonymy, a concept that structures other ones, interrelated between themselves on various levels. The effect on the media system is an hybrid object, an explosive mixture, an offshoot of a skillful dosage of different ingredients: old and new media, P2P horizontality and stiff verticality, opacity and transparence.

It is composed by:

  1. A technologically advanced infrastructure that in these days was able to resist to large-scale attacks, mainly (but not only) operated through DDOS. The communication system matrix was conceived as the promise of an high level of anonymity and security in transmitting data, in order not to expose to danger the
  2. sources, which – we can but speculate – are at work on different levels of the sphere of US administration.
  3. A managing board who carries out duties of capital importance, among which the modalities and the release schedules of the leaks and a careful creaming off of contributors (this measure being essential in order to avoid hostile infiltrations).
  4. The financial support provided by several organizations: among whom, the Wau Holland (a charismatic and recently gone figure of the Chaos Computer Club) Foundation, a long-standing hacker organization, devoted since the 80’s to a manifesto that identified in the disclosure of information a strategy to follow). This foundation, taking advantage of the German law (which allows to not reveal the donors’ names) settled itself as a secure funding system.
  5. The creation of a very well devised hype, thanks both to statements of highly symbolic value and to a leaks’ disclosure which has been doled out: so far, the result has been that of maintaining at its highest levels the attention of the long tails in the web and of the global media.
  6. The relation with some of the major global information media, whose role is not “just” to spread the leaks, but literally to INFORM THEM (that is, give them a form), thanks to the work of analysts able to set them in place historically and politically, and to select with accuracy which news to promote and to which ones to give bigger relevance. Otherwise, who among the “netizens” would have time, skills, knowledge and resources to peer at that huge quantity of raw leaked data? It happened with the Iraqi and Afghan war diaries. It happens even more with the diplomatic communications – as even Sergio Romano stated on the Corriere della Sera – because they are the product of a complex code, to be interpreted with the right linguistic and political coordinates. And it will be even more true at the time of the disclosure of the financial world data. It can look like a provocation but, from this point of view, WL is not providing information at all: it organizes some database according to chronological or geographical criteria. But not political ones. Moreover, the relation with some of the big traditional media assumes another meaning: when on Sunday 28th of November, shortly before the cables’ publication, the WL network came under attack, a tweet confirmed what many did expect: «El Pais, Le Monde, Spiegel, Guardian & NYT will publish many US embassy cables tonight, even if WikiLeaks goes down».
  7. Lastly and by necessity WL is also the thousands of websites which voluntarily decided to mirror it (that is, to publish a backup of the cable archives and to constantly update it) after the attacks suffered in the previous days.

Yet, if we try to catch an overview of these early considerations (we could add others on the joints of WL in the social networks) we easily realize that WL turns the tables and unsettles the traditional verticality of many informative national and international media systems, producing a network which splits them across. A fluid and efficient network in which, nevertheless, nodes of different importance do unquestionably exist: for example, the mirroring activity mentioned before is subject to the release made by the central node.

In the same way, as reported by the journalist Farhad Manjoo, in WL lives a necessary contradiction: its mission, also symbolized by the slogan shown on its twitter profile account (“We open governments), is to achieve an absolute transparence through an organizational modality which takes into account a necessary level of secrecy. We are not playing the search for the oxymoron; we are simply restraining ourselves to notice that the anonymity of the sources doesn’t allow to understand which goals animate them. Goals which – it has to be said – could not match those of Assange & co. And this is not an easily overlookable issue (also because of other critical points, which we will examine later).

Therefore, we are also facing a new form of media network. A new way of developing distributed journalism, but not a P2P one. WL disintermediates the traditional information flow and moves on to immediately recreate new levels of intermediation with several cores.

The front lines of the netwar

There are many aspects still to be looked at. The scorched earth that has been created around WL this week has materially represented a preview of the tensions that since quite some time are building up around the strategical node of the web global governance.

We know that the planning of US military strategy nowadays identifies among its fundamental grounds the claim of US military superiority in providing a securing of the web for ensuring itself a “free access” to cyberspace, identified as a global common.

Therefore, if the WL issue did show the difficulties of the US government in the management of this global common, at the same time it emphasized how the planning on this issue is in an advanced phase of elaboration and implementation.

Which parts of the WL network were successfully hit?

  1. Its ability to receive funding was put in check by the freezing of Assange’s Swiss bank accounts, by halting Mastercard and VISA payments and finally by suspending the Paypal account. This very last company, after initially claiming that WL was breaking the website’s policy had to admit that the canceling of the Wikileaks account was due to US State Department pressure.
  2. The suspension of the hosting service by Amazon, that took place by the stimulus of an old acquaintance: the senator Joseph Lieberman, author of the Internet Kill Switch bill.
  3. The removal of the DNS domain wikileaks.org (now replaced by the domain wikileaks.ch). Surely it is not the first time that a DNS domain is shut down, but it is uncommon for this to happen completely outside any agreement or law protocol, by means of an unilateral US impulse.

This last feature above all very closely recalls the contents of the COICA law proposal, unanimously approved by the US senate Judiciary Committee, on which a few words are to be said. Celebrated by RIAA and MPAA, if approved the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act will be introducing processes of regulation of the web which could alter its features. Which are its guidelines?

a) The US Department of Justice is entrusted with the fight against “filesharing”: it will be able to prosecute any website that soils itself with copyright infringement.

b) by requesting various federal courts to issue an injunction against a website, the DOJ would be able to shut down a domain. But what it may be as innovative as worrisome in this legislative proposal is what Torrentfreak points out:
«If the courts then decide that a site is indeed promoting copyright infringement, the DOJ can order the domain registrar to take the domain offline. The bill is not limited to domestics offenders, but also allows the DOJ to target foreign domain owners.»

And continues:

«Aside from classic ‘pirate’ websites, the bill also conveniently provides an effective backdoor to take the whistle-blower site Wikileaks offline, or its domain at least. After all, Wikileaks has posted thousands of files that are owned by the United States»

The “censorship” of such sites will be based on blacklists completely written by the US government. No need to linger on the arbitrariness which will define them.

The coming into force and an effective implementation of such a legislative bill would have unprecedented consequences: the US government could acquire a totally unconventional role, stepping on to carry out duties exclusively performed by the ICANN (yet thoroughly criticized in the last 15 years for its de facto US-led management) until now. A legislative bill holding the US as self-appointed plumbers of the internet network, opening and closing the taps of information with the aim of directing its flow.

Something right now unacceptable for other state and regional players (it’s not a coincidence that the latest warning of the British The Economist goes: don’t create a digital Afghanistan”). Something that may in turn signify the creation of new and separate systems of dominion in other macro-spaces on the planet, producing a fragmentation of one of the main frames of the global network (which would cease to exist as such). About this issue EFF itself stressed that

«To recap, COICA gives the government dramatic new copyright enforcement powers, in particular the ability to make entire websites disappear from the Internet if infringement, or even links to infringement, are deemed to be “central” to the purpose of the site».

And adds:

«If the United States government begins to use its control of critical DNS infrastructure to police alleged copyright infringement, it is very likely that a large percentage of the Internet will shift to alternative DNS mechanisms that are located outside the US»

Therefore, far from being rash and neurotic, the US reaction has clear continuity lines in regard to the sedimentation of a stance towards the web with roots sinking in a past time ground.
Given the consonances between what is accounted for by the COICA and the infowar unleashed in the last few days, it looks pretty legitimate to us to ask whether the WL issue could also represent an accelerator for these processes of break-up and militarization of the web.

Which could be the presumed next moves made against WL?

A. di Corinto claims that «the next step will likely be that of preventing indexation in the search engines of the WL-related web resources» (one has to ask: will Google and Baidu take the same measures?) and, we might add, it has to be understood what move Facebook and Twitter will make who, even if not confirming the hypothesis of excluding WL from their platforms, neither denied it (while instead they did readily cancel accounts and web pages belonging to the organizations that had led in these hours the attacks against the enemies of WL instead).

Finally, two other remarks.

An essay by Mark Pesce traces a parallel between WL’s possible evolution and the filesharing systems. What we imagine to be a good omen actually spots another possible vulnerability of WL, perhaps even deadlier than the DDOS attacks that are hitting it. Assange’s organization bases its reputational capital on the reliability and the truthfulness of the information it releases. In this way it creates an aura of trust around itself, on which the fluid links which it is able to interweave and its society-building action are based. A dynamic very close to that of the big social networks or of the P2P systems. By which means the distribution of copyrighted contents on the filesharing networks was fought? By putting false or forged material up there. Since WL’s sources are anonymous and therefore each single document has to be verified in its authenticity, it has to be asked if a flooding of well-made forgeries sent to WL (we refer to this specific category because Assange himself pointed out that there are hundreds of people sending material to WL) could not somewhat flood the publication mechanism or bypass the control mechanism, leading to the publication and distribution of unauthentic documents: the trust which WL did create around itself right now would be broken.

 

But the front of the cyberwar features, in turn, plays of light and darkness and has many participants: a cross-party reaction of users and hacker communities (even very different among themselves) brought a counterattack against the financial brokering services Mastercard and Visa, preventing access to them. Applications and web pages were released, thanks to which anyone was able to participate in the attack against the networks that hampered WL’s activity. Moreover, Peter Sunde revived (by no coincidence closely to the wikileaks.org domain blackout) the proposal to create a distributed DNS system, able to resist the meddling of governments and militaries. A proposal that in turn, after the events of these days, could be seriously taken into account by many people, and that would mark the nth break-up of one of the fundamental infrastructures running the web.

Technological totems and the taboo of the networked conflict

The WL effects don’t end here, but play a devastating role on the ideological ground marking, in our opinion, the end of various web theories, that with this event reach their zenith, yet at the same time touching a ceiling of irreversible contradictions. Another paradox to be added to the list.

First. Let’s try to imagine the WL issue from a reversed point of view.
Assange is a Chinese dissident which exposes classified documents to the world, reason for which he is arrested and imprisoned. Along the usual lectures on the internet as a democracy-exporting tool comes the peace Nobel prize nomination within 2 days, plus a silent sense of gratitude for providing tools and information through which the international projection of the Chinese image undergoes a reframing and weakening in terms of public opinion.
It is an absolutely symmetrical perspective to the one which is unfolding in these hours.

And we cannot deny to enjoy a subtle pleasure in noticing how some pseudo-intellectual bloggers who are filling their mouths by now with buzzwords and slogans after celebrating for years the figures of Anna Politkovskaja and Yoani Sanchez, can proudly include Vladimir Putin as well in the ranks of the democratic fighters for “freedom of speech”, while on the other side of the barricade stands Barack Obama, the man for whom the internet was one of the main driving forces in the run for the White House. Thanks to this, but not only, he could set up the broadest political marketing operation ever seen, mobilize the social movements, start a copious fund raising and bring back to the ballot box ample groups of population in such a difficult context as the US’ one; plus, also and above all, he did impress in the collective imaginary the brand of the network and of the open government as something symbiotic to a change that did never came true.

Second. The stance of Amazon and of the other big US transnational corporations in the effort of clogging WL‘s network and its branches is a blow from which the prophets of the techno-determinist and neo-positivist optimism will hardly recover. The typically liberal paradigm adopted for years by such people as Negroponte gets smashed as a result: such points as <<The combined forces of technology and human nature will ultimately be more effective means in reaching the goal of plurality than any law Congress can invent>>, the call to a diffusion of democratic principles through the development of electronic telecommunications and the consumption of hi-tech products, or the overriding of censorship through the “beneficial power” of the global communication channel may finally sink into oblivion, with the definitive demonstration that digital technology isn’t at all a <<natural force bringing people towards greater world harmony>>.

Third. The neo-enlightenmentist dream of Rosseauian legacy of a democracy of individuals that comes into existence in the folds of an anarchical infrastructure dies miserably at the same time as it is reaching one of its great goals: the transparence of power towards the social. The blanket is too short: if it is pulled from one side, it leaves the other uncovered and the individuals, once again, end up being rotating particles around intermedial frames (those of the news and politics) that determine them.

Fourth. That a call for a serious reflection on the concept of the common good applied to the internet is of greater and greater urgency is out of discussion. In such a background as the one which is taking shape in these days, that concept cannot be given neither as fundamental right, nor as something already present in the material relations that shape the internet. Simply, it can be imagined as a conflictual ground. And acted upon as such.

Working on the fractures

Lots of people on those days uncorked champagne to celebrate the end of the “old world” without realizing that, inside of the upheavals produced by WL, full-fledged members of that club are acting, and that in turn they will do an absolutely conventional – but nonetheless effective – use of the leaks, in terms of national and international public opinion manipulation. Besides the already mentioned Putin, we mustn’t forget Netanyahu, which thanked WL hat in hands (and also performing a nice bow with a pirouette) for its disclosures on Iran: another piece in the construction of the political frame which legitimates Israeli aggressiveness in Middle East.

What does this mean? It means that the fractures produced by WL aren’t one-sided at all, as many commentators would like them to be, but that they must be imagined, organized, readdressed in frames according to a grassroots and partisan point of view and used in the making of subjectivities.

Let’s make a counter-example: which effects on a global scale would had sorted a critical re-appropriation of sense through the contextualization of hypothetical, 2003-published “Iraqi War Logs” at the peak of the “No War” mobilizations by the movements’ media, coming along with an appropriate tactical stance in the streets? Their pressure on the anesthetized journalism of the Bush era, and on the authorities themselves would have been unbearable.

Break and continuity, fractures and fragmentations, old and new players: a white-hot crucible of contradictions that cannot be avoided. Even if the picture of an old order is shattered or it gets chipped, the shards which fall on the ground will not immediately establish a new one. It’s up to us pick them up before someone else does. This, or the WL metonymy could take yet another meaning. That of a new spectacular global format to be watched beyond the screen of your LCD TV set or netbook. And little changes if you retweet info or do participate in the televoting: Julian Assange is hosting, while Earth’s powers are at each other’s throat.

 

(Translated by InfoFreeFlow Crew – thanks to Kemal Kamel and Lilix for their help and support;)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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