WikiLeaks and the re-architecturing of society

While others have been writing about Julian Assange’s ability to control media, I am more concerned about WikiLeaks impact on the future of the Web. Pundits like Jeff Jarvis have articulated some brilliant insights on new media business models and such, but the Internet in terms of media seems to be too well-trodden nowadays. I always tend to think about the Web more radically, just like Sean Parker:

“re-architecting society. It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.”

So what about WikiLeaks and the Web? Let’s start with Jonathan Zittrain‘s book “The Future of the Internet and how to stop it“.  In his book he eloquently explains how the promise of the Internet might not be realized any longer. Due to its “generativity”, the Internet permits anyone, anywhere to build on it. But in order to preserve the Net’s glorious promise, we should stick to its most important principle: Net Neutrality. It is a hot topic nowadays. Scientific American‘s latest issue dedicates an entire article to the concept, written by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the Web’s fathers. One of the principles Tim touches is universality. James Hendler uses the AAA-slogan in his Semantic Web book to refer to the same — Anyone can say Anything about Anything. There shouldn’t be any hardware or software constraints to access the Web. But more importantly, people must be able to put anything on the Web — they must be able to “build” on it.

Think about the vast implications of universality.

The foundation of democracy is directly linked to freedom of speech and the concept itself is at the heart of the Web. Somehow that makes our society’s technology a democracy, and just like democracy itself the Web needs to be protected.

Not long ago, after Google had defied from China because Chinese hackers hacked into US internal networks, of amongst others Google, to find dissidents e-mail addresses, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Web freedom should become a formal plank in American foreign policy. For the first time, the United States formally articulate that the Internet’s nature should be “protected”.

“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic.”

In regards to the cablegates controversy, it again was Hillary Clinton again that reacted after WikiLeaks gave people around the world an unprecedented insight into the US Government’s foreign activities.

The catch then is if Clinton goes after the whistleblowers or the free flow of information.

The Net itself, characterized by its open social structures and architecture is all but to blame here. It is a platform that allows people to spread information more easily. But the future of the Internet, and moreover the Web, is at risk if governments chase WikiLeaks, because it underpins one of the principles of the Web.

The Web is, just like a nuclear bomb, a technology. However, once nuclear bombs have advanced, scientists realized that when such bombs explode, radio active materials such as isotopes are released. While numerous bombs were produced during cold war, these weapons of mass destruction were never used for war directly. An inherent danger of mutually assured destruction is looming.

So the question is how the Web will evolve.

Unfortunately we still have soldiers in a war, fighting the enemy on the front line. There are still weapons, although there are laws that restrict citizen weapon usage. But let’s not mistake these kind of restrictions for what the governments might go after when they impose restrictions on the Net. When earlier this week Amazon decided to pull the plug on WikiLeaks, I was afraid that the end of the Internet as we know it, had already happened. Luckily, as per Amazon, the WikiLeaks ban was not initiated by government inquiries. WikiLeaks simply did not conform to terms of service. But when governments really start chasing WikiLeaks by banning them from the Net, they mislead the public by fighting the medium, not the cause. The result is the breaching of a human right called freedom of speech.

And the cause is that society is evolving. Old structures are no longer in place.

If US diplomats are really engaging in espionage to the United States, this means international covenants are not respected. In the first place, the public administration should fight those who leak confidential, classified or secret information. As for WikiLeaks, I think that they are leveling the diplomacy playfield by making leaders more accountable for what they sad and what they do. The Internet gives us the ability to spread this type of information and the Web scales.

There definitely is a need to know. No way it is about transparency or the need to share. We are simply too concerned as humans and we should act accordingly when our untrustworthy leaders are failing us. Therefore, WikiLeaks role of making people aware of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identify of sources anonymous, and revealing of suppressed and censored injustices, is crucial.

Let it however be clear that we do need activists that fight for the good, but we need to be clear about their intentions, and moreover about WikiLeaks intentions. Who is behind this organization and can it actually function in a decentralized way? Who controls it? Which techniques are used to verify integrity? A lot of questions to be answered.

Another danger is that Wikileaks’ libertarian anarchy might bring Adam Smiths’ invisible hand out of balance in the free market economy. Finally, WikiLeaks should not replace the government but should cooperate with the public and the private.

To end with, let’s talk about the glorious promise of the Net. For all those who take the Internet for granted: imagine what would happen if the government starts imposing new control structures. Sadly, this is already happening outside the US as articulated, again, in Clinton’s speech:

“In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained. One member of this group, Bassem Samir, who is thankfully no longer in prison, is with us today.”

Berners-Lee has been quoted multiple times saying that “the goal of the Web is to serve humanity”. I couldn’t agree more, and I even want to take it to the next level stating that it is critical to human survival. Clinton adds in her speech that “the spread of these technologies is transforming our world, [but] it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and the human welfare of the world’s population”. Again, I couldn’t agree more. However, what does “human welfare” and serving humanity really mean? This is a matter of right and wrong.

Let’s not pretend that the Internet is not doing any harm to people. Factually the Internet is turning markets upside down, destroying relationships and endangering people’s lives. But on the other hand, it is creating so much value. It is the most powerful information source, brings people back together and helps them to establish new relationships. It even facilitates drug discovery to combat Alzheimer’s disease.

So the real question in regards to the WikiLeaks controversy is how, and which measures and techniques the governments are going to apply to fight these “dissidents” and how WikiLeaks will be operating.

I truly believe that we haven’t seen anything yet. Everyday I meet people that don’t seem to understand how disruptive the Web really is. And as for WikiLeaks, it is part of our society. Let’s just hope that it contributes to a better world.

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