11 December 2010
Six Anti-Theses on WikiLeaks
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 2010 23:41:07 -0500
-----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE----- [Degraded by HTML conversion. See original at nettime archive.]
Six Anti-Theses on WikiLeaks
Following "Twelve theses on WikiLeaks" by Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens
1. Wikileaks exposes the slippery moralism of global capital.
The corporate abdication of non-discrimination prefigures more scrutiny of online activity. Visa, Amazon, Mastercard, Tableau, PayPal, PostFinance, and EveryDNS: each severed their relationship with one or more aspects of the WikiLeaks organization due to technicalities. None were served with legal documents requiring that they stop supporting "illegal" activity; rather, some caved due to vague public and private requests by functionaries within US government offices. Yet, these business have no moral qualms as to provide similar services to the Ku Klux clan, homophobic sites and just about anything else. As to the decision to cut Wikileaks off they justified their actions via the legalese of their Terms of Service (ToS) or Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), contracts that we all accept as the necessary evil of using free services online. AUPs, once the interest of legal scholars or small actors who fell afoul of them, now become the prime means for ending of services to the undesirable. (Recall, for example, Facebooks' threat of legal action against the seppukoo project. This is a refrain that continues to haunt the online space; however it was never seen with such vehemence as with WikiLeaks.) Yet in a truism, this does not only eliminate the possibility of online activity, for the actions of Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal prevent the flow of electronic currency to WikiLeaks, requiring the organization to ask for either bank transfers (that are prohibitively expensive for people in the US) or paper money orders sent to a physical address. These actions by financial institutions foreground the linkage between online activities and their real reliance on forms of money that are still tied to large corporations. As well, the use of contractual language to engage in corporate censorship enables what is prohibited by US Constitutional guarantees, among other legal safeguards elsewhere in the world. Given the tiered nature of the internet---in that a hosting provider purchases bandwidth from a separate company, that probably purchases DNS service from a separate company---means that any activity can be forced offline by any intermediary if found to be in violation of the ToS. While you may have legal recourse via a civil suit, such an undertaking is oftentimes impossible due to the legal costs involved and the vastly unequal power differential.
2. Wikileaks draws on the tense affair between the antiauthoritarian ethos of hacker culture and the authoritarian logic of capital, also known as neoliberalism.
WikiLeaks found a characteristically computational way around their hosting problems, drawing on an unorganized group of volunteers to provide mirrors of the site (http://wikileaks.ch/mirrors.html). This strategy of providing mirrors for content hearkens back to 1990s internet culture, where the practice of setting up FTP mirrors was commonplace (hacker culture itself is situated in the 1940s, see Steven Levy). Mirroring mitigates the impact of corporate censorship somewhat, but is likely to be impractical on a large scale in the long-term, especially for all of the worthwhile projects that can be removed by intermediaries. Nevertheless, this example of mirroring is an interesting case of hackers relaxing their security mindset for what they perceive as a greater good. Setting up a WikiLeaks mirror requires the administrator to allow a member of WikiLeaks remote access to their server in order to upload new files as needed; this is made possible using public-key encryption techniques, the focus of much hacker attention in the 1990s. Usually system administrators would never open their servers for unknown people to upload files. But there seems to be a belief here that the sysadmins of WikiLeaks, whomever they are, will not abuse their power and will only upload what they say they will upload. There is something here that deserves greater scrutiny, especially in light of what Mathieu O'Neil calls "hacker charismatic authority". Most studies consider this as a form of authority over people; in this case, however, the authority is exercised amongst sysadmins, enabling them to open their machines to the unknown WikiLeaks administrators.
3. Wikileaks shows that any system is vulnerable to infiltration.
WikiLeaks is highly collaborative, and not only as a result of the recent mirroring activity. Indeed, the project is only possible due to their collaboration with the individuals and groups providing the content to be leaked. Throughout the recent consternation over "Cablegate", the hundreds, if not thousands, of other people who have put their lives on the line to pass documents to WikiLeaks have unfortunately been forgotten, Bradley Manning excluded. To ignore these people is to make a grave analytical error. Be thankful that we do not know their names, for if we did, they would be in immediate danger.
4. Wikileaks demonstrates that the human 'factor' is the weak spot of networks.
The "Cablegate" release also shows the importance of having collaborators within governmental and military institutions. If we assume that Manning is the source of the diplomatic and military cables---and this has not been proven yet---then we can see how individuals within these organizations are disgusted with the conduct of the war. This is of a piece with other projects such as Iraq Veterans Against the War and the War Veteran's Book Project that aim to present the personal side of the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way of organizing public outrage. Do not discount the power of solidarity with disgruntled soldiers. We only have to recall the Abril Revolution in 1974 in Portugal, where the military supported the peaceful transition from the Salazar dictatorship, to understand how important it is to have military forces on one's side. Recall as well that the main technical tool used to anonymize submissions to WikiLeaks, Tor (The Onion Router), came out of a US Naval Research Laboratory project to protect clandestine activities overseas. In fact, members of the military are some of the most vocal opponents of current attempts in the US to require person-level attribution of data packets online.
5. WikiLeaks is a classic example of using media as a tool for de-dehumanizing.
The actions of Anonymous on the websites of Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, PostFinance, and others are in a lineage with the FloodNet by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. While many mainstream media sources see these as "attacks", others, such as the editors of The Guardian, realize them to be "non-violent action or civil disobedience". We do not want to discount how easy it is for the media and authorities to misconstrue these actions as illegal denial of service attacks, as a 16-year old Dutch teenager is finding out right now, or as the EDT and b.a.n.g. lab found out earlier this year. Nevertheless, we are seeing a certain maturation of this technique as acceptable to others outside of the net.art community.
Furthermore, the deliberation process of Anonymous prefigures future forms of activist collaboration online, subject to the caveats mentioned above. Discussions happened across a diversity of networked media, both old and new (IRC, Twitter, Blogspot, PiratePad, etc.). Orderly discussion under the control of a leader was not the norm, as individuals simultaneously put forth their own suggestions to have them edited into or out of existence. As Gabriella Coleman wrote in her analysis of their planning, they appeared to be "seasoned political activists", not simply "script-kiddies" as they are described by both the mainstream media and other hacker organizations such as 2600. Maybe there is something those of us interested in new forms of organization can learn from these predominantly 16-24-year olds.
6. Wikileaks suggests an understanding of a notion of networks as media assemblages.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the recent Wikileaks phenomenon has to do with what it portends for future networked tendencies. Given what we stated in anti-thesis 1, we ought to pay more attention to the movement of information outside of Internet-based networks. There is a tendency to conflate network sharing of data with the Internet proper, but this is not a necessary condition. Indeed, there are multitudinous methods of arranging networks of humans and things that do not rely on corporate or government controlled conduits for the passage of bits. Consider, for example, the host of artistic projects in this space just from the past couple of years: netless, Feral Trade, deadswap, Dead Drops, Fluid Nexus, Autonet, etc. These projects rely on assemblages of humans and infrastructure in motion. And, they rely in part on a prior agreement among participants with respect to protocols to follow. This is already at work in the Wikileaks project with respect to their main members. Only they know who they are; we are in the dark, and rightly so. This is an application of Hakim Bey's concept of Immediatism, updated to take into account a certain mongrel of immediate contact and networked activities.
Additionally, the projects just mentioned foreground a certain notion of slowness that works to counteract the notions of "information overload". If data transport relies on the motion of humans from one location to another, this will require a particular patience, producing a form of slowness. Nevertheless, this should not be understood as a pastoral call as voiced by certain proponents of, for example, the Slow Food Movement. Rather it is a way to reinvigorate thought and practice regarding human-scale machinic assemblages. What remains is the difficult and challenging work of producing long-term, permanent ad-hoc networks.
Members of the Faculty of the College of Ontopoetic Machines
-----BEGIN PGP SIGNATURE-----
Version: GnuPG v1.4.10 (GNU/Linux)
-----END PGP SIGNATURE-----
# distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without