John Naughton: The WikiLeaks wake up call
Will a backlash against the WikiLeaks phenomenon have significant implications for the future of the Internet?
The current row over the latest WikiLeaks trove of classified US diplomatic cables has four sobering implications.
The first is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the Net.
As the backlash unfolds - first with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on ISPs hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay/PayPal suddenly withdrawing services to WikiLeaks and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students from posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook - the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured.
The response is vicious, co-ordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the Net.
There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called 'liberal' democracies that are desperate to shut WikiLeaks down. Consider, for example, how the views of the US administration have changed in just a year. On January 21 last year, Hilary Clinton, US secretary of state, made a landmark speech about Internet freedom in Washington DC which many observers interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google.
"Information has never been so free", declared Mrs Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."
She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity. The United States' belief in that truth is what brings me here today."
Secondly, the one thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they comprehensively expose the way political elites in Western democracies have been lying to their electorates. The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed (because even the dogs in the street know that), but more importantly that the US and UK governments privately admit that too.
The problem is that they cannot face their electorates - who also happen to be the taxpayers who are funding this folly - and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US Ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.
The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this. Afghanistan is, in that sense, the same kind of quagmire as Vietnam was. The only differences are that the war is now being fought by non-conscripted troops and we are not carpet-bombing civilians, but otherwise little has changed.
Thirdly, the attack of WikiLeaks ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on. The 'Terms and Conditions' under which they provide both 'free' and paid-for services will always give them grounds for dropping your content if they deem it in their interests to do so. Put not your faith in cloud computing: it will one day rain on your parade.
Finally, what WikiLeaks is exposing is the way the Western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (the US and UK in not regulating their financial sectors); corrupt (Ireland, Italy; all other governments in relation to the arms trade) or recklessly militaristic (US and UK in Iraq) and yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way.
Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted in a really effective way, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.
As the Guardian's columnist Simon Jenkins put it: "Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure. As Jefferson remarked, the press is the last best hope when democratic oversight fails, as it does in the case of most international bodies."