Sunday, December 12, 2010

David and Goliath : WikiLeak and the aftermath

"Endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". The above line and the first amendment (freedom of speech) has been the cornerstone of liberal thinking for most of us. Though the policies of the United States have often not been fair (to put it extremely mildly), at least “open speech” and “communication” were areas, where even their worst critics didn’t have much to say. So we indeed had a country which allowed people to say anything – send hate mails, abusing religions of the minorities and say various "offensive" things.

Not any more.

The recent WikiLeak revelations about the Apache helicopters, the Iraq war logs, the Afganisthan war logs and the US government’s knee-jerk reaction made it apparent how fragile the US concept of “freedom of speech” really is. Sarah Palin, who is heavily tipped to be the next presidential candidate suggests that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be “hunted down in the way armed forces are targeting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda”. Assange had to practically go into hiding and finally was arrested in London for alleged sexual offences conducted in Sweden. At the very least, he will face an extremely long drawn extradition fight that would drag on for months.

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall…

The people accustomed to power games are rather good at disposing of fancy garments like ethics and morality. In the present case, they decided to do a “full monty” – and that too at a lightening pace. Those fancy axioms of “innocent till you are proven guilty” and “equal and fair treatment towards one and all” were summarily dumped with a vengeance. There were some rather quiet, strictly verbal “understanding” with some organizations like PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, Amazon etc which ensured that WikiLeak, and by extension Julian Assange had practically no access to their assets. Their bank accounts were frozen, revenue inflow and/or donations blocked and all other financial transactions blocked. Parallelly, at the sub-surface level, a silent “whispering” campaign was started with the target of socially ostracizing WikiLeak. Messages were sent to major schools including Boston University's School of Law, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs through their alumni cautioning students against commenting on or posting links to the WikiLeak documents on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. So not only was WikiLeak to be financially paralyzed, they were also to be made an outcast!!

In the process, the actual pertinent question about ethical journalism got covered under several layers of ashes and dust.

The way WikiLeak has exposed things throws up the all important question about finding the right balance in journalism. Who has a right to what? It we try to argue that we have a right to know everything the state is doing on our behalf, then the reverse will also become true and it will become rather difficult to argue about the right to privacy for the individual. This is the crux of the matter and should have been argued and finally the judiciary, in some form or the other, should have been brought into the game to draw the line. The government officials, however, decided to draw the line themselves and take actions on their own.

Quite often there are objectionable things published on the net - like criminal activities, fraud sites, child pornography, copyright offences etc, when the government has to do a very legitimate "notice and takedown" or a straightforward takedown. Incase of information which tend to compromise the national security of the country, there is an absence of a clear judicial process. This, however, should not become an excuse for the government to act in any way they please, thereby making a farce of the constitution and fundamental human rights. By not respecting the law, by not respecting the ethics and by trying to violate the first amendment, they have opened the door for others also to act in an irresponsible manner.

Violence begets violence. In this case, the violence was bloodless, strictly digital and happened in cyber space!

The strike back was led by a group of hacktivists (hackers cum activists) who call themselves “Anonymous” or “Anons” (short for Anonymous). They have came up with their own “manifesto” in an open letter: "We are not a terrorist organization as governments, demagogues, and the media would have you believe. At this time Anonymous is a consciousness focused on campaigning peacefully for Freedom of Speech. We ask the world to support us, not for our sake, but for your own,"

Within a span of two days, Anonymous has attacked, in sequence, the Swiss bank PostFinance (the bank holding Assange’s bank account and had stopped all transactions in this account), Online payment service provider Paypal (who had refused to accept payments to WikiLeak) and the credit card majors, Mastercard as well as Visa (credit card companies who have refused to accept or allow donations made to WikiLeaks). All these companies have experienced a kind of digital Armageddon of requests which has blocked their servers and causing a slowdown or complete stoppage. The Anonymous have also declared their next target – the online book retailer major (who did not allow WikiLeak to store their documents in the Amazon servers but is selling WikiLeak’s top secret United States diplomatic cables online).

What the Anons are doing is technically called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS). The DDoS uses the social networking sites to gather a substantial following and then provide these followers with small software programs which are designed to repeatedly send messages to the target site. If a large group of people do this simultaneously, and the attacks are carefully timed for maximum effect, the computer servers that host the websites are bound to crash for a period of time. This technique had been used by the Zapatista rebels of Mexico way back in 1994 with the help of a software company called
Electronic Disturbance Theatre. The same company launched the first DDoS software called FloodNet in 1998 and today, this is the biggest artillery in the hands of the hacktivists worldwide.

How would people have reacted to such acts under normal circumstances? I believe most would have categorized such acts as cyber crimes or extremely immature irresponsible acts. In the present context, however, these acts have become protests against the totalitarian establishment. There is a certain romanticism which has also got attached to this ; a bunch of unorganized young computer geeks who have decided to stand up against the big bad wolf – a modern day tale of David and Goliath. This war is now a fight for the freedom of speech, a modern day saga of a freedom struggle where new phrases like “net neutrality” and “information is free” are its slogans and banners.

What the coming days would reveal is that it is far more difficult to contain the Djinni once it has come out of the bottle. These computer geeks, who are usually recluse and socially inept mavericks are experiencing their first taste of power. And nothing corrupts people more than unchecked power. We would have to wait and see whether these hacktivists limit themselves only to this or similar causes or start using their newly gained power to become the next terror on the net.

We are in the midst of the first Cyber world war which is going on between the establishment and the free spirited netizens. As a strong believer of freedom of speech, an ardent netizen and a romantic at heart myself, my sympathies are naturally with these techno-nerds who have taken the American bull by its horn. But what will happen after the twilight?

Only time will tell.

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