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

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?

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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

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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107 comments
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  • No need of internet to leak

    Carl von Ossietzky and Walter Kreiser had no internet.
    Daniel Ellsberg and Neil Sheehan had no internet.
    Mordechai Vanunu had no internet.

    US have echelon, that has not stopped any leak. east europe had numerous agents and relied heavily on denunciation without stopping discontent and opposition.
    s_souche
    • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

      @s_souche
      You are right the the internet isn't required for leaks. However, the squeaking wheel gets the grease and the internet axles have been really screaming. Expect controls one way or another.
      Bill4
      • You and Mr. Gewirtz have a big obstacle

        @Bill4 ... it's called the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.<br><br>"If we cant play nice, our toys might be taken away."<br><br>Could King George the third, or the Communist thug dictators in China have put it any more eloquently?<br><br>To Gewirtz and authoritarians everywhere, your rights are a 'toy' to be 'taken away' as thoughtlessly as they'd take away a toy from a child.<br><br>Communication technology is a genie now out of the bottle. It ain't going back in.
        HollywoodDog
      • A general comment

        @HollywoodDog

        You and several others, many of whom appear to be Americans, have posted eloquent and thoughtful responses to MR. G's blog(s).

        Let me just state for the record that is warms my heart and gives me some hope, that maybe, just maybe, America, can again rise up and become a true leader, with moral authority, in the world. Much work remains before that can happen however. I wish you all the best.

        Thank you all.
        Economister
      • Thank you Econ, I try

        @Bill4 ... what's heartbreaking to me is that we advertise ourselves as the 'land of the free' and have a first amendment, which the UK doesn't. But the UK through its imperial history right up to today seems to take freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of access to information more seriously.<br><br>Yes, they've got their problems, like raging blind sheiks howling for jihad and whatnot, but the fact that those people are tolerated, where here we'd manufacture some BS rape charge or something and lock them away, says volumes about who is actually the guardian and preserver of Western civilization and its tradition of freedom of thought and inquiry, and fidelity to the truth.<br><br>If I were to finally get fed up with our authoritarian government and the evil toads at the lower level who implement its evil, and decided to jump ship and emigrate to a freer country, even though I'm of German heritage (3 generations ago) I'd probably select Britain specifically for its freedoms.<br><br>The UK also has its war criminals in black tie, beating their chests on TV boasting about their torture and murder and daring the authorities to do anything about it. But at least there those people fear for their safety. The American people are so numbed by terror and propaganda from their government that I fear this land is irredeemably corrupt.
        HollywoodDog
      • One other comment..

        @Bill4 ... have a look at the movie "The Ghost Writer."<br><br>Remember that Roman Polanski had waltzed in and out of Switzerland for 30 years, until he released that movie which accused (don't want to be a spoiler) the US government of being limitlessly evil.<br><br>It was only then that Swiss authorities detained him and began a lengthy process of deciding whether to extradite him to the US to stand yet another trial.<br><br>When Swiss authorities decided not to do so, the allegedly 'liberal' Washington Post senior editor Eugene Robinson threatened him, in a column on the Post's Op-Ed page, with CIA kidnapping and torture. He then ended his column urging his readers not to see Polanski's film (which attracted my curiosity and got me to see it, which explained everything).<br><br>All for the high crime of directing a film which made the Government look bad.<br><br>Nobody in the world apparently noticed that, except me and perhaps Mr. Polanski.<br><br>None of this would cause authoritarians to bat an eyelash, but that's not what they taught me this country was about in grade school. I grew up hearing how we cherish freedom and everything. I took that stuff very seriously. Apparently to todays government and its lackeys, it's all lip music.
        HollywoodDog
      • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

        @Bill4

        I'd also like to add my relief that such an alarmist blog has garnered such well thought out replies. It's too easy for those of us in "socialist" countries where a healthy cynicism of politicians is still balanced by a belief that a goverment can act benevolently to its citizens, to view all Americans as Fox News zombies, moving from one manufactured outrage to the next.

        But it's the best of times and the worst of times. Against the tabloid TV excesses, the endless shopping channels and the poisonous TV diatribes, there are gems like the Today Show and the Colbert report - although it's both alarming and ironic that I find the best US political information on the Comedy Channel ;-) My business exists because of US software and hardware and my week would be a lot poorer without my diet of US drama and sci-fi shows,

        Freedom of speech is a two edged sword. The world where goverments arbitrarily deny their citizens information and imprison whistleblowers is a lot scarier than one where the truth occasionally causes problems.
        tonymcs@...
    • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

      h t t p : / / 0 8 4 5 . c o m / 1 o 3

      I tide fashion
      dfgjhjh
  • I thinnk you are dreaming

    Simply put, Americans won't stand for the government to take control as you suggest. Trying to win the war on "unpopular internet use" would be about as succesful as the "war on drugs" has been.

    Personally, I see nothing at all wrong in what WikiLeaks has done. If they put a bright light on governments and those governments scurried for cover like so many cockroaches its not the light that is at fault.

    Finally, the argument that the US government has to stoop to the same level as others in order to be "secure" then there is no difference between us and any terrorist anywhere.
    NoAxToGrind
    • one question no ax

      @NoAxToGrind <br>Have any change in your diet lately , blurry vision , nose bleeding ,headache , Alien abduction ..dont know you seem to have change it puzzle me greatly .....<br>2 time in a month i agree with you (mostly ) This ain't good what next cat and dog , end of the world ....<br><br>NIce post man next time you post something like that i may have to offer you a beer , do you realize that it mean ..... banging my head on technician table screaming NO no-axe will not deserve a beer ever its not possible there must be a MS-linux scam somewhere think damn it .....<br><br>have a nice day
      Quebec-french
    • Americans are careless about their rights

      @NoAxToGrind

      Actually I think the latest TSA tempest-in-a-teacup showed that American citizens will knuckle under to almost anything if the guvmint tells them to.

      A lot of the infrastructure is already being put into place. Up to this point, the Feds were mainly interested in wholesale monitoring and logging of domestic Internet traffic. They spent almost $40 Billion dollars on colocation data centers, telecom and data servers. The amount of data that they collect and analyze every day would astound you. But they haven't been too concerned with active control and censorship, up until now. Responsibility for that was actually vested in another branch under the Cyberwarfare initiative, which gets much less funding that the ICE and counter-terrorism groups.

      The view of the internet as "self-healing" is misleading. Today's US-based internet structure is fairly hierarchical with a relatively small number of choke points at the backbone exchanges. The Feds have not yet put that much effort into controlling the raw data flow, they took a different tactic: control the initial contact. This is done through controlling the DNS system and the search engines. Their reasoning is logical: if people can't find contact information or content pointers, they can't ever communicate the actual data.

      For all the political posturing, the DNS structure is firmly in the hands of the US Government. Search engine companies are also active cooperating: Google has a legion of staffers devoted to identifying and removing links according to government direction. It started with the usual suspects: child porn and terrorism. Then it extended to commercial entertainment content (courtesy of MPAA/RIAA lobbying) and now to "sensitive government information".

      If the news organizations had not picked up and published massive amounts of the Wikileaks data, links to the original material hosted on non-journalistic websites would have vanished almost overnight. But the damage was done when sites like the Times published data, because these sites are well-known in themselves and one does not need a search link to access them. Because of that, the government and Google did not actively attempt to filter Wikileaks links.

      So information control and censorship is already alive and active on today's web. It's a credit to the Feds that this is not well understood, which is why this article even got written. The internet has already changed, get used to it.
      terry flores
      • The internet is firmly under control, eh?

        @terry flores ... I'm sure teenagers browsing 960 'cables' while downloading Avatar and pirated Windows 7 agree with you.
        HollywoodDog
      • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

        @HollywoodDog

        So far, the efforts to stop piracy are in their infancy, ICE just started seizing domain names via DNS preemption two months ago. If some sources are to be believed, the number of seizures could go to 2,000 by the end of March 2011. People who are already part of some existing community will move around and continue to share files, but new people won't be able to just type in "Avatar rip" in Google and get an instant link to a file hosting site.

        One step at a time ...
        terry flores
      • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

        @terry flores Spot On!
        Bodazapha
      • Problem is, it's not tie-dyed hippies who oppose this stuff

        @terry flores ... it's well-funded technology corporations, and not just in the US.

        It's illustrative though that you want to turn us in to Saudi Arabia as far as government control of people access to information goes.

        Hillary Clinton recently lectured the Chinese government on attempts to restrict access to information. Her speech today reads like a masterpiece of satire.

        Terry Flores, you're an evil, evil monster.
        HollywoodDog
      • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

        @terry flores Yes, that is right on the money. I wish that I could've laid that out as eloquently as you have. One thing to remember though, from my understanding Julian Assange released these documents personally to The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel in the days before he publicly released them on his website. He let their reporters look over the documents, decide what they could sensationalize, and then released them on his site. This is nothing more than a false flag operation. Laughable really, except that most of America will eat it up like it was the gospel and we'll lose one of the last real places in the world to speak our minds and debate publicly about oppressive governments and such. Thanks for the post.
        Inotweirdyouweird
      • I can't take credit for it

        @HollywoodDog "Terry Flores, you're an evil, evil monster" <br><br>In all modesty, I can't take credit for the current state of affairs. The American people let it all happen. Congress and the courts long ago abandoned any responsibility to the welfare of the common citizen, I'm just pointing it out.<br><br>CALEA - enabling mass wiretapping and monitoring, gov't subsidies to telcos to pay for it and gain cooperation.<br>DMCA - Removing the courts and due process protections for individuals, favoring large corporations and automation.<br>PATRIOT - Essentially warrantless searching, courts reduced to a rubber-stamp role, all shrouded in secrecy with no recourse by common citizens. Even disclosing that you complied with a National Security Letter is a crime punishable by jail time.<br>COICA - pending, but further enhances corporations and government authority to seize control of the Net without meaningful due process protections. <br><br>Wikileaks is just an inflection point, the mechanisms to drive authoritarianism on the net were being built over the last decade. I don't like it, but I understand how it is happening. And the while the corporate interests and bureaucratic interests are being looked after, the public has *not* been protecting their own interest. Therefore they will be losing many capabilities and benefits they have been taking for granted these last years.
        terry flores
      • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

        @terry flores
        Chuckle.... with the overload of data, how the hell is the US Government analyzing all this data?
        Like trying to drink from a firehose..... there is just too much to do it effectively.....
        rhonin
    • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

      @NoAxToGrind

      <b> Simply put, Americans won't stand for the government to take control as you suggest. </b>

      When enough people feel that there is some danger to them, they will allow anything. If they can still use their facebooks and Googles, and as long as the control is invisible to the eye.

      The Patriot Act? Gun Control? The War in Iraq?

      Look, I'm not arguing whether it's right or wrong. It's just clear that people can be manipulated to allow increased governance for the sake of "peace".
      PlayFair
    • RE: Could Wikileaks change or destroy the Internet as we know it?

      @NoAxToGrind
      It didn't stop the Patriot Act. And, hasn't stop the FCC from going far past it's Charter. It hasn't stop back door attempts some of them all but successful as taking the 2nd Amendment. So, what makes you think that arrogant deaf and dumb bunch inside the beltway even cares? Or, can be stopped? The frogs are in the water and for some 110 is comfortable... But, the boil is coming and it will be too late to jump out of the pot!