WikiLeaks and the Internet's Long War

By Tim Hwang
Sunday, December 12, 2010

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

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.

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