Battening Down the Hatches, Circling the Wagons: The WikiLeak Effect on the Public Diplomacy of Internet Advocacy

A few months ago, I blogged here and elsewhere about the similarities and differences between China and the United States in terms of articulated policy concerning the development of the Internet. Wikileaks -- so huge an event in the history of the way we think about these questions -- is dramatically bringing the two positions more closely together and will probably have some significant impact on what might be called the "public diplomacy of Internet structuring."

The focal point of my earlier blog was Secretary Clinton's speech in January 2010 about the future of the Internet. That much-applauded and much-cited speech, "Remarks on Internet Freedom," had the requisite caveats, but it was a ringing call for a global commitment to "one Internet" and the "freedom to connect."

For example, Secretary Clinton said :

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks. They've expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.

Part of the speech was supportive of United States federal efforts to finance the production and diffusion of "circumvention" technology -- designed to assist individuals who seek to avoid the filtering systems of oppressive regimes.

Now, we are reinvigorating the Global Internet Freedom Task Force as a forum for addressing threats to internet freedom around the world, and we are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what's right, not simply what's a quick profit.

And censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand. I'm confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.

In the post-WikiLeaks era the emphasis may lie elsewhere. Actions by the federal government, including the OMB's memo on mishandling classified information, suggest an enhanced appreciation of accountability and control, and an amazingly rapid redeployment of traditional approaches to modes of thinking about information management. A whack-a-mole strategy of trying to extinguish WikiLeaks and disable its founder is up against the brilliance of the hacker community and the legal ingenuity of extraordinary lawyers like the wily, ingenious Mark Stephens, Assange's lawyer, according to the New York Times. The specific actors are different now -- Amazon and Paypal -- but the inclination is familiar. It's symbolic and significant that the Library of Congress has been enrolled into the process of filtering.

Individual action -- coping with WikiLeaks -- is accompanied by systematic rethinking. As an example, aggressive support for circumvention technologies may meet new ideas of multilateral approaches to information management. Ideas of a single Internet will be swamped by ideas of sovereignty and state notions of control. Ideas of information sharing already shows signs of retracking to an emphasis on departmental responsibility and architectures that permit substantial surveillance.

Controversial ideas will have second or third lives. In June 2010, Senator Joseph Lieberman and others submitted legislation to Congress that would allow the President to declare a cyberemergency and seize control or close down segments of the Internet. Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act (PCNAA)

Contrast Lieberman's sponsorship of the emergency power legislation in the United States with his support, with Senator McCain and others, of the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act:

We also greatly appreciate Secretary Clinton's recognition of the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act, which we introduced in the wake of Iran's presidential election last year. The VOICE Act, which passed the Senate unanimously and was signed into law in October, authorizes the U.S. government to facilitate the development of technologies that the Iranian people can use to access and share news and information, and overcome the electronic censorship efforts of the Iranian government.

Even in June, some had pointed out the ironies and complexities of the U.S. position, citing an off-hand remark that the United States, like China, should have the capacity to close down or regulate the Internet in times of emergency.

While the so-called presidential "Internet kill switch" capability was severely limited in later versions of the bills, the idea to strengthen the president's authority to respond to cyber or information attacks may only have gained currency in the wake of recent events (including Stuxnet and Wikileaks).

The entire mode of self-regulation depending on unhindered declarations of terms of service and how to administer them may be in question. Interestingly, the Berkman Center has an upcoming report on independent media and sites that hosts them in which Hal Roberts has a skeptical view of the power of host sites to decide when terms of service have been broken.

Discussing's decision to oust WikiLeaks, Roberts wrote:

If this is really how they made their decision, this is a worse process than merely succumbing to the political pressure of the US government. At least Lieberman is an elected official and therefore to some degree beholden to his constituents. Amazon is instead arguing dismissively that it made the decision based on its own interpretation of its terms of service. Without getting into the merits of either side, the questions of whether WikiLeaks has the rights to the content and especially of what level of risk of harm merits censorship are very, very difficult and should clearly be decided by some sort of deliberative jurisprudence rather than arbitrarily and dismissively decided by a private actor.

This need for careful, structured, and public deliberation on these questions is obviously balanced by Amazon's right to decide what to do with its own property. But as a society, we have reached a place where the only way to protect some sorts of speech on the Internet is through one of only a couple dozen core Internet organizations. Totally ceding decisions about control of politically sensitive speech to that handful of actors, without any legal process or oversight, is a bad idea. The problem is that an even worse option is to cede these decisions about what content gets to stay up to the owners of the botnets capable of executing large ddos attacks.

There are very different takes on the impact of WikiLeaks and its implications for national security. But it will also have its mark on how the United States is perceived and projects itself in the ongoing debate over architecture of information, the role of the state, and the power of law itself.