WikiLeaks and the Internet's Long War

By Tim Hwang
Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some historians like to talk about the "Long War" of the 20th century, a conflict spanning both world wars and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. They stress that this Long War was a single struggle over what kind of political system would rule the world - democracy, communism or fascism - and that what a war is fought over is often more important than the specifics of individual armies and nations.

The Internet, too, is embroiled in a Long War.

The latest fighters on one side are Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, and the media-dubbed "hacker army" that has risen in his defense in the past week, staging coordinated attacks on government and corporate institutions that have stood in his way. They come from a long tradition of Internet expansionists, who hold that the Web should remake the rest of the world in its own image. They believe that decentralized, transparent and radically open networks should be the organizing principle for all things in society, big and small.

On the other side are those who believe fundamentally that the world should remake the Web in its own image. This side believes that the Internet at its heart is simply a tool, something that should be shaped to serve the demands of existing institutions. Each side seeks to mold the technology and standards of the Web to suit its particular vision.

In this current conflict, the loose confederation of "hacktivists" who rallied in support of Assange in what they called Operation Payback, targeted MasterCard, PayPal, Visa and other companies with a denial-of-service attack, effectively preventing Web sites from operating. It's a global effort of often surprising scope; Dutch police said they arrested a 16-year-old last week suspected to be involved.

Their cause, from which Assange has publicly distanced himself, follows the simple logic of independence. One self-declared spokesperson for the "Anonymous" group doing battle for WikiLeaks explained its philosophy to the Guardian newspaper. "We're against corporations and government interfering on the Internet," said the 22-year-old, identified only as Coldblood. "We believe it should be open and free for everyone."

The battle between "Anonymous" and the establishment isn't the first in the Long War between media-dubbed "hackers" and institutions, and considering the conflict's progression is key to understanding where it will lead.

In the early 1980s, Richard Stallman, then an employee at MIT's artificial-intelligence lab, was denied permission to access and edit computer code for the lab's laser printer. Frustrated, he kicked off what he calls GNU, a massively collaborative project to create a free and sharable operating system. His efforts sparked a widespread movement challenging the restriction of access to software through patents. Supporters asserted that they had a right to control the code in their own computers.

The battle reached far beyond Stallman, eventually pitting corporations and patent-holders against this early generation of free-software advocates. The bulk of most software is still private, though open-source projects have gained popularity and even dominance in some arenas. Stallman continues to advocate for free software.

Another major milestone in the conflict arose in 1999, when Shawn Fanning launched Napster, allowing for seamless peer-to-peer sharing of content. The service ballooned, claiming more than 25 million users at its peak and resulting in mountains of copyrighted content flowing freely across the Web. The site was sued and shut down in 2001. However, the ensuing battle over copyright law drew a line between industry representatives, such as the Recording Industry Association of America, and the "hacker" advocates for the free flow of content.

Though Napster was forced to stop operating as a free service, the culture and innovation that it launched continued to grow. This led to the creation in 2001 of BitTorrent, a distributed and difficult-to-track peer-to-peer method of transferring large files.

Large-scale use of this technology emerged in 2003 in the form of the Pirate Bay, which indexes BitTorrent files en masse. The site's founders and operators, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Carl Lundstrom, Fredrik Neij and Peter Sunde, would emerge as the Assanges of this battle, permitting a massive and continuous leak of copyrighted content in the face of waves of police raids and lawsuits - persisting even beyond their eventual conviction on infringement charges in 2009.

The WikiLeaks fight is in the tradition of these conflicts, just on a much vaster scale. As the Internet has become an integral part of our everyday lives, narrow and technical questions about who gets to run and edit computer code have morphed first into battles over copyrighted content, and now into fights at the highest levels of government secrecy and corporate power. Assange's efforts to undermine the secrecy and control of established institutions - and the attacks his defenders have launched against MasterCard, a Swedish prosecutor and possibly Sarah Palin's political action committee - are the latest and highest form of a war that has been waged for decades.

So what is the future of this Long War?

In his recent book "The Master Switch," Columbia law professor Tim Wu makes the case that the Internet, on its most basic level, is just like any other communications medium. As such, we shouldn't be surprised to see consolidation and government control over the Web. It's true that most other media - movies, radio and television - have gone through phases of wild growth and experimentation, eventually settling into a pattern of consolidation and control.

Why should we expect any different of the Web? Is the arc of the Internet's Long War predetermined?

One key factor is embedded in the history of the Web and the many iterations of the Long War itself: The Internet has cultivated a public vested in its freedom. Each round of conflict draws in additional supporters, from hackers to the growing numbers of open-government activists and everyday users who believe, more and more, that the radical openness of the Web should set the pattern for everything.

As the battlefield has become more vast - from laser printer code to transparency in global diplomacy - the Internet's standing army continues to grow, and is spoiling for a fight.

Tim Hwang is a former researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the founder of ROFLCon, a conference about Web culture and Internet celebrity.

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