Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wikid Games (2011)

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wikileaks is currently under heavy attack.

In order to make it impossible to ever fully remove Wikileaks from the Internet, Wikileaks is currently mirrored on 1426 up-to -date sites (from WikiLeaks website)


Once upon a time, if you wanted to keep a secret, you locked it in a drawer and held the only key. When states wanted to keep secrets, they used huge underground warehouses with security locks and armed guards to store the vast quantity of information compiled by their spies, spooks and secret police. Most of this information was useless, and most of it never saw the light of day. Then the information revolution happened.

A very large wired information network looks exactly like a sieve, and that's essentially what it is. Information leaks out of it in any number of ways, on purpose or by accident. When you can hold the personal details of 50,000 people on a pen-drive no larger than a cigarette lighter and when these can fall out of pockets on the tube train home, the potential for leakage is gigantic. Then there is email, which is not secure and which has become the preferred mode of communication for all businesses and public services. Just a few emails brought about 'Climategate' in 2009, in which a few careless phrases by researchers at the University of East Anglia fatally undermined the authority of the Independent Panel on Climate Change.

The recent WikiLeaks' exposure of the private lives and opinions of the world's movers and shakers has been so prodigiously covered in the press that the details are scarcely worth covering again, yet from a socialist standpoint the furore deserves to be set within a wider context than the conventional media never discusses. The capitalist class, as indeed all hitherto ruling classes, owes its power not only to its private ownership and control of wealth but also its private ownership and control of information, and inevitably socialists must ask themselves to what extent the overthrow of the latter is likely to lead to the overthrow of the former.

While controlled leaks have always been a tool of government, or internecine feuds within government, it was rare until recently for damaging information ever to escape and when it did, retribution was punitive. When in the 1970s Philip Agee, a CIA agent working in the UK, published an exposé of CIA operations including names of operatives, the US authorities reacted with fury, had him deported and mounted a smear campaign against him involving sex allegations and alcoholism that ran to 18,000 pages (Guardian, 19 December). In 1971 Richard Nixon was tape-recorded speaking thus of Daniel Ellsberg, another Pentagon mole gone public: "Let's get the son of a bitch into jail.... Don't worry about his trial. Try him in the press."

Mud, glorious mud
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has made no secret of his involvement in the leaks, so one would be astonished not to see governments trying to fling whatever mud they could at him. And sure enough, he is currently on bail in the UK and facing possible extradition to Sweden to answer sex crime allegations, followed by a possible further rendition to the US to face a lifetime wearing an orange jumpsuit in a certain Cuban seaside resort.

That these allegations are a frame-up is a conclusion that many people have leapt to with a conviction thus far unsupported by the known facts, however it is undeniable that the whole business looks damned fishy. If the UK or Swedish authorities go one step further and allow the Americans to get their hands on him, the affair may well blow up to become the Dreyfus case of the 21st century.

But how do you try a website? WikiLeaks is a game-changer for state security forces and radicals alike, challenging the whole notion of secrecy and calling into question what if anything can be kept secret. The universal state condemnation of WikiLeaks rings increasingly hollow and comical when one looks at the massive public support for it. The vast number of mirroring sites – sites that duplicate WikiLeaks – means that WikiLeaks could not realistically be shut down without shutting down the internet.

It isn't only source websites which pose a problem for state security, it's also destination sites. If you wanted to leak a confidential document in 1950, there would only be a few newspapers or small printing presses to leak it to, most of whom would not risk touching it. Conventional media tend to have a symbiotic, back-scratching relationship with government which ensures that newspapers are self-regulating so direct news bans – D notices – are rarely invoked. Media bosses are capitalists themselves and have no interest in rocking the boat. But the other side of the information equation is publication and distribution, and the internet has created unlimited scope for both.

Thus Wikileaks can sidestep conventional media and leak to anywhere, even to the Socialist Standard if it chose to, which means that the capitalist class has for all practical purposes lost control of the mass media. It cannot hope to strike mutually agreeable deals with every media outlet, especially not those avowedly hostile to it, and any attempt to coerce or threaten such outlets would be likely to blow up in its face and make matters worse.

Off with their heads
Aside from the allegations against Julian Assange, Wikileaks itself is not however above criticism. Its foundation in 2006 is shrouded in some mystery. Founders allegedly include Chinese dissidents, mathematicians, technologists and journalists, yet none have been identified. There is supposedly an advisory board of 9 members, yet one 'board member' has said that his involvement is minimal and that the board is merely 'window dressing'. One volunteer told Wired Magazine that Assange considers himself "the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier, and all the rest". Indeed, WikiLeaks is not even a Wiki anymore because Assange has removed public editing access to it, and has moved away from being a mere whistleblowers' conduit to a full publisher in his own right. Whether or not he set out to do so, Assange does seem to be going for personal glory but in doing so is drawing down all the fire on himself. One-man-bands don't play well when they're playing against the state. One way or another, American and European state agencies are out to get WikiLeaks which is why the obvious move is to go for a decapitation strike against Assange himself.

Even if they succeed in bringing down Assange, there is no stopping what he started. This month a former Wikileaks advisor is set to found a new website called OpenLeaks, which aims to avoid the problems WikiLeaks has encountered, specifically by being governed democratically and by remaining as a conduit for anonymous information rather than empire-building into a publishing enterprise. At heart is the open source philosophy which holds that cooperative and transparent endeavour is more productive and progressive than the secretive and territorial ethos which underpins most capitalist activity: "Our long term goal is to build a strong, transparent platform to support whistleblowers – both in terms of technology and politics – while at the same time encouraging others to start similar projects" (Wikipedia, OpenLeaks). There is a parallel here with file-sharing sites, which started as centrally controlled databases (Napster) that were easy to target and kill, before evolving into distributed peer-to-peer systems which had no centre and could never be nailed down and neutralised. There is a further parallel to be made here with democratic models in politics. Socialists oppose leaders and vanguardist leadership-based groups on the left, not only in fact but also in theory, because top-down hierarchy structures are too easy to neutralise. In fact, as a distributed, egalitarian and transparent organisation, we could lay claim to being the original political Open Source movement.

All of a Twitter
There is a momentum of workers' disgust at capitalism at the moment, at least in the western countries, starting with the sub-prime collapse which exposed nonsensical business logic, then massive bail-outs and bankers bonuses, together with squalid parliamentary expense fiddles, followed by the most savage cuts in living memory and attacks on the poor and those on benefits. Anyone who thought 'the yoof of today' could never be motivated by politics is having to eat their words as students pour onto the streets, camcorders in hand to record and upload police cavalry charges onto YouTube just as the police attempt to deny them. Meanwhile 'hacktivists' attack banks with massive Denial of Service offensives and the spontaneously organised UK-Uncut group occupy and picket the stores and offices of banks, mobile phone companies and high street stores accused of large scale tax avoidance. Though one could always quibble with these activists' grasp of the bigger picture over tax, or their tactics in singling out individual companies when, after all, they're all at it, you've got to admire how the digital native generation are mobilising their opposition in ways that the ruling class has not anticipated and is ill-prepared for.

The grubby game that is capitalism is being exposed as never before in its history, and more people are getting to know about it every day. The genie is out of the bottle, and there's no putting it back in. These are interesting times for socialists.
Paddy Shannon