As I am just putting the finishing touches on a new issue of Surveillance & Society, on surveillance and empowerment, the furore over the Wikileaks website and it’s publication of secret cables from US diplomatic sources has been growing. Over the last few days, Julian Assange, the public face of the website and one of its founders has been arrested in London on supposedly unrelated charges as US right-wing critics call for his head, the site’s domain name has been withdrawn, Amazon has kicked the organization off its US cloud computing service, one of Assange’s bank accounts has been seized, and major companies involved in money transfer, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard, have all stopped serving Wikileaks claiming that Wikileaks had breached their terms of service.
At the same time, hundreds of mirror sites for Wikileaks have been set up around the world, and the leaks show no sign of slowing down. The revelations themselves are frequently mundane or confirm what informed analysts knew already, but it is not the content of these particular leaks that is important, it is the point at which they come in the struggle over information rights and the long-term future of the Internet.
The journal which I manage is presaged on open-access to knowledge. I support institutional transparency and accountability at the same time as I defend personal privacy. It is vital not to get the two mixed up. In the case of Wikileaks, the revelation of secret information is not a breach of anyone’s personal privacy, rather it is a massively important development in our ability to hold states to account in the information age. It is about equalization, democratization and the potential creation of a global polity to hold the already globalized economy and political elites accountable.
John Naughton, writing on The Guardian website, argues that western states who claim openness is part of freedom and democracy cannot have it both ways. We should, he says, ‘live with the Wikileakable world’. It is this view we accept, not the ambivalence of people like digital critic, Clay Shirky, who, despite being a long-term advocate of openness seemingly so long as the openness of the Internet remained safely confined to areas like economic innovation, cannot bring himself to defend this openness when its genuinely political potential is beginning to be realised.
The alternative to openness is closure, as Naughton argues. The Internet, created by the US military but long freed from their control, is now under thread of being recaptured, renationalized, sterilized and controlled. With multiple attacks on the net from everything from capitalist states’ redefinition of intellectual property and copyrights, through increasingly comprehensive surveillance of Internet traffic by almost all states, to totalitarian states’ censorship of sites, and now the two becoming increasingly indistinguishable over the case of Wikileaks, now is the time for all who support an open and liberatory Internet to stand up.
Over 30 years ago, between 1975 and 1976 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault gave a powerful series of lectures entitled Society Must Be Defended. With so much that is social vested in these electronic chains of connection and communication, we must now argue clearly and forcefully that, nation-states and what they want be damned, “The Internet Must Be Defended!”