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WikiLeaks and the Internet's Long War

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.


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