Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

Summary:How is it possible that a simple Web site can so infuriate governments the world over, but still remain active?

I've mentioned before in previous articles that doing interviews with radio and TV hosts often get me thinking about topics I'm studying from a new perspective. This was certainly the case with a BBC interview I did last week (and no, sadly, I did not get to meet the Stig).

The question I was asked was this: can governments squash Wikileaks?

Let's, for the moment, leave out the question of whether governments should try to crush any Web site or informational movement. Instead, let's look at the question of whether or not it's possible.

Here's what we've seen so far.

We've seen Wikileaks lose its DNS provider, so it had to change its domain name from wikileaks.org to wikileaks.ch.

We've seen Wikileaks lose access to income sources when PayPal, MasterCard, and others stopped accepting payments on its behalf.

We've seen Wikileaks lose hosting services from Amazon, when Amazon rightly determined that Wikileaks had violated its terms of service (the part where you need to own your own content was a clear violation).

We've also seen Wikileaks' ringmaster, Julian Assange, finally tracked down and arrested. Weirdly, though, he wasn't arrested for trafficking in stolen government documents, but for some conveniently strange sexual deviance charge.

I honestly can't tell how to parse that one. We don't really know Assange, so we don't know if he is a sexual offender, but isn't it curious how those charges suddenly showed up? I'm obviously not a fan of the guy, but the timing is...interesting.

But even though Wikileaks continues to take a licking, it still keeps on ticking.

How is it possible that a simple Web site can so infuriate governments the world over, but still remain active?

That, loyal readers, is the nature of the Internet.

A Web site is, essentially, nothing but a folder of files living on a hard drive somewhere. Almost nothing is easier to fling around the 'net than a folder of files (especially when compressed into your basic zip file). Further, almost nothing is easier to duplicate than a folder of files, and so we've seen mirror after mirror spring up all across the world.

Mirror sites and torrents are decentralized, but our Internet naming systems are, at their core, centrally controlled, right? So even if the sites are mirrored, if governments cut off the DNS system and search engines de-list them, they'll effectively disappear, right? Not anymore. Dave Winer points out that Wikileaks fans have effectively used Twitter to route around the DNS failures, simply by posting "where to find Wikileaks" tweats, creating what he calls a human DNS.

But why Wikileaks? Why, assuming he actually did what he seems to have done, did Bradley Manning take his stolen classified documents and send them to Wikileaks? Why didn't he just zip them up, throw them into a torrent, and let them propagate like just so many illegal copies of that horrid Avatar movie?

Why, indeed.

The answer is that Wikileaks has become something more than a mere folder of files. Wikileaks has become a brand, a cause, a rallying cry for both antiwar protesters and those who want to seed unrest among Western governments.

So here, then, is the problem. Where Bradley Manning led, others are sure to follow. We're sure to see more leakers looking to exact revenge, cause trouble, gain notoriety, or disrupt relations among nations.

This is a problem for governments.

It's also a problem for industry, but nation states are in a greater position to respond than, say, a BP or a Bank of America.

This is not just a problem for the United States. Other nations -- and not just our allies -- would suffer if their classified information was released. Lists of undercover spies, lists of secret locations, lists of devious plans in progress, all of these things would disrupt the sorts of clandestine operations all governments do, and have done, since mankind invented governance.

Make no mistake. There is an ugly side to governance. For while we all wish to see transparency in governance, bad actors do exist and, in response, all governments must have the means to fight back, often underground and out of sight.

While some of these underground operations are, were, and will continue to be corrupt and illegal, many others have and will continue to save lives and protect democracy the world over.

Wikileaks, and whatever it morphs into, gets in the way of the sausage-making that is governance in operation.

The question, then, is this: will governments continue to let it happen? On the surface, that's a fine question, but when certain senators ask it, the question smacks of a deep technological lack of awareness of the redundant, robust, routing-around nature of the Internet.

As the Internet exists today, it will be virtually impossible for a government (or governments) to stop the information flow. Sure, a given Web site, domain name, or even hosting provider can be shut down. But as information moves more and more to the edge, it's impossible to shut down all peer-to-peer file share nodes, it's impossible to block every single computer in homes, offices, and schools across the planet who might host and replicate purloined files.

As. The. Internet. Exists. Today.

At the beginning of this article, I asked a provocative question. I asked, "Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?"

You now know the context in which I was asking that question. Because if enough governments are angered over the sort of behavior that a Wikileaks is engaging in, and if they can't use existing law enforcement or other means to stop this sort of behavior on the current Internet, there is the chance they will force the Internet to change its nature.

Countries like North Korea and China have been attempting this already. China has erected what's called The Great Firewall of China, the Golden Shield Project, jindùn gongchéng.

The purpose of this project is to monitor and control everything that travels in, through, or out of China's Internet. Sites are blocked, content is filtered, and censorship is rampant.

While Western governments undoubtedly engage in some level of overall Internet monitoring, there is nothing like the Golden Shield in operation here.

But if the UK or the United States or, say, Russia, decides its finally had enough of this trafficking in stolen classified information, we may start to see more draconian controls placed on our use of the Internet.

We may start to see in-depth packet analysis for all traffic, so that torrents containing classified information can be disrupted. We may see ISPs required to block any encrypted or binary communication, so anything that's unreadable by governments can't travel across the network. We may see citizens permanently cut off from the Internet (and, by extension, cut off from their friends, jobs, and society) because they're hosting files that only just might be similar to files of interest.

This, then, could be the true, selfish legacy of the foolish idealists who support Wikileaks and the release of information that should not be revealed.

If we can't play nice, our toys might be taken away.

The true legacy of Wikileaks might not be increased transparency in our governments. The true legacy of Wikileaks might be the destruction of the Internet freedoms we all hold so dear.

So, yeah, thanks Wikileaks. Good going.

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Topics: Government : US, Browser, Government

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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