In 1996 John Perry Barlow famously issued A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow was, among other things, a founder of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), one of the first on-line discussion groups, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet civil liberties union.
He believed that the Internet had created a new kind of non-material realm beyond the control of governments, like the Western U.S. frontier of old.
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.
via A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
The idea of cyberspace as a parallel non-material reality was in the air – not just among science fiction writers such as Vernor Vinge in True Names (1981) and Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (1992), but business visionaries such as George Gilder in Microcosm (1989) and Telecosm (2000). Gilder said the electronics revolution created a new economy based on “bits,” or pure information, which was intellectually and morally superior to the old economy based on “atoms,” or mere material objects. People spoke of how “meat space” had been superseded by “cyberspace.”
More soberly, Barlow’s EFF co-founder John Gilmore (the third was Mitchell Kapor of Lotus) said that information circulated over the Internet could not be suppressed because of the Internet’s distributed nature. A newspaper has its offices and presses in buildings with known street addresses, but Internet sites – interacting with other sites – can’t be so easily pinned down. As he put it, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
This idea, too was in the air. Some people credited the Internet for the fall of Communism. One writer – I forget his name – ridiculed George Orwell for fearing totalitarianism and wrote an alternate ending to Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the power of Big Brother crumbled because the citizens of Oceania had learned to network their telescreens.
The business and political world embraced the idea of Internet freedom. Rupert Murdoch said, “Advances in the technology of communications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarianism everywhere.” And Bill Gates said, “You cannot control the Internet.”
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Bill Gates’ Microsoft Corp., along with Google, Yahoo and other corporations, went along with Internet censorship in China, but supposedly that was all right. The mere presence of the Internet and networked communication were supposed to be a liberating force in and of themselves.
Ronald Reagan said, “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Bill Clinton said that Internet censorship would be like “nailing Jello to the wall.”
“Imagine if the Internet took hold in China,” George W. Bush said. “Imagine how freedom would spread.” And Barack Obama told the Chinese, “I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet – an unrestricted Internet access – is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.”
Now we have a test case for John Gilmore’s thesis. The test case is Wikileaks.
Amazon stopped hosting Wikileaks after Senator Joseph Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security Committee complained. Wikileaks lost two other hosting services as well, EveryDNS in the United States and OVH SAS in France. PayPal, MasterCard and Visa stopped processing its donations. Wikileaks lost its domain name and came under denial of service attacks. But Wikileaks came back stronger than ever.
As James Cowie said on the Renesys web log:
Taking away WikiLeaks’ hosting, their DNS service, even their primary domain name, has had the net effect of increasing WikiLeaks’ effective use of Internet diversity to stay connected. And it just keeps going. As long as you can still reach any one copy of WikiLeaks, you can read their mirror page, which lists over 1,000 additional volunteer sites (including several dozen on the alternative IPv6 Internet). None of those is going to be as hardened as wikileaks.ch against DNS takedown or local court order — but they don’t need to be.
Within a couple days’ time, the WikiLeaks web content has been spread across enough independent parts of the Internet’s DNS and routing space that they are, for all intents and purposes, now immune to takedown by any single legal authority. If pressure were applied, one imagines that the geographic diversity would simply double, and double again.
And we’re only considering the website itself, not the torrented data files, which ensure that cryptographically signed copies of the website and its backing data are dispersed beyond all attempts to recall or suppress the information they contain.
Cowie says that Wikileaks has shown that once information is propagated on the Internet, it is virtually impossible to retrieve: –
First, even without considering the possibility of alternatives to the current DNS infrastructure, it’s evident that the country-level distribution of authority inherent in the ccTLD system has provided enough political cover to keep an extremely controversial site running. Everyone has laws that make certain kinds of content illegal, but there is no global agreement across jurisdictions about the definition of illegal content.
Second, it’s apparent that search and social infrastructure (Google and Twitter) now play a key role in re-spawning content that gets blocked in any one place, and drawing even more attention to the surviving copies. If suppressed content automatically goes viral, the Internet’s construction basically guarantees that that content will have a home for the rest of time. If you attack DNS support, people will tweet raw IP addresses. If you take down the BGP routes to web content, people will put up more mirrors, or switch to overlay networks to distribute the data. You can’t burn down the Library of Alexandria any more— it will respawn in someone’s basement in Stockholm, or Denver, or Beijing.
Finally, we can predict that in the future, enforcement of local laws will take place almost exclusively at the consumer edge of the Internet. Providers of content can change jurisdictions, but consumers generally cannot — and this asymmetry drives the creation of national domain blacklists and monitoring of access to illegal content within access networks.
John Perry Barlow’s Declaration said, “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not a place where bodies live.” Julian Assange and the other Wikileaks organizers, however, do not live everywhere and nowhere; at any given time, they live somewhere, and they have physical bodies that can be thrown in prison – or worse.
Now you might say Assange supporters’ denial of service attacks – flooding of Internet sites with spam messages in such volume that they are forced to shut down – are an example of how the Internet empowers freedom fighters. Not really! There is nothing that individual hackers can do in secret over the Internet that secret governmental intelligence agencies cannot do in greater volume and with greater expertise.
A new bill sponsored by Senator Lieberman will make it a crime to publish information that discloses the name of an American spy or informant or reveals the intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government if such information is prejudicial to U.S. interests. Leaking such information already is a crime.
Another bill, introduced last June by Senators Lieberman, Collins and Carper, would give the President the authority to declare a “national cyber-emergency” and force private companies, including Internet service providers and search engines, to limit or sever their connections to the World Wide Web for up to 30 days. It has been described as an “Internet kill switch.”
The earlier bill has a legitimate purpose. Lots of things, from the electrical distribution system to the national financial markets, depend on the Internet; I have read articles fretting in particular about the vulnerability of the national electric grid to malicious hackers. But it is worded so broadly it could be used against Wikileaks. Senator Lieberman originally denied this was the bill’s purpose, but now says it is one of its features.
I think the significance of Wikileaks is less in the information it has revealed as in the question it has forced us to decide. What, if any, are the limits on governmental power to operate in secret? What, if any, are the rights of the individual to reveal facts the government wants to hide?
This is very like the struggles over press freedom civil liberties of the past. The struggle for freedom to communicate via the Internet is not a new story. It is a chapter in an age-old story. My freedoms do not depend on 21st century technology, but on whether my government and fellow citizens respect the principles of my country’s 18th century Constitution.
Cyberspace is a metaphor, not a place. The Internet has not created a new world. It is part of our world.
Click on WikiLeaks: Moving Target for the full James Cowie report on the Renesys web log on the technical aspects of the Wikileaks struggle. It is well worth reading in its entirety.
Click on Wikileaks avoids shutdown as supporters worldwide go on the offensive for a non-technical Washington Post article on Wikileaks resiliency.
Click on There Is Something to See Here for Aaron Cady’s latest Wikileaks commentary on his Zungazunga web log. All his Zungazunga posts are well worth reading.
Click on A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace for John Perry Barlow’s full manifesto. He wrote it, by the way, in opposition to the Communications Decency Act.
Click on John Perry Barlow Wiki for his Wikipedia biography. He is a remarkable guy; he has been, among other things, a rancher in his native Wyoming and a lyricist for the Grateful Dead.
Click on Information is the Antidote to Fear for the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal analysis of the Wikileaks situation. The EFF does good work, but if cyberspace is intrinsically immune to policing, why does it need its own civil liberties organization?
Click on Lieberman Introduces Anti-Wikileaks Legislation for a report on Senator Lieberman’s newest bill.
Click on New Bill Would Let Obama Police Internet for National Security Reasons for a report on the earlier Lieberman-Collins-Carper bill.
Click on Moscow’s Bid to Blow Up Wikileaks for a reminder that the U.S. government is not Wikileaks’ only enemy.
If you have a sense of irony, click on Flashback: Sec. Clinton hailed Internet freedom as tool to ‘spread truth and expose injustice’ for an account of her speech to the Gannett Foundation’s Nuseum in January, 2009.
[12/23/10] Click on The Blast Shack for SF writer Bruce Sterling’s comment on Wikileaks. Sterling has been writing non-fiction about computer hackers for about 20 years.
[12/23/10] Click on Hacker Culture: A Response to Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks for a rejoiner.
[12/23/10] Click on The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy for comment by Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer and critic of Internet culture.
[12/23/10] Click on Wikileaks Exposes Internet’s Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy for a rejoiner.
[1/31/11] Click on Without Internet, Egyptians find new ways to get online for a Computerworld article on how Egyptians evaded President Mubarek’s attempted shutdown of the Internet.