Zeynep Tufekci argues that “What the Wikileaks furor shows us is that a dissent tax is emerging on the Internet”:
…the Internet is not a true public sphere; it is a public sphere erected on private property, what I have dubbed a “quasi-public sphere,” where the property owners can sideline and constrain dissent…During these past weeks [we have seen] the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech–it’s just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.
The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere “quasi-public sphere,” the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private. If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power…
The real cause for concern is the emergence of an Internet in which arbitrary Terms-of-Service can be selectively employed by large corporations to boot content they dislike. What is worrisome is an Internet in which it is very easy to marginalize and choke information. The fact that information is “there” in a torrent, or openly on a website that is not easily accessible or has been vilified, is about as relevant as your right to shout at your TV.
It has become obvious that, increasingly, contentious content is going to require infrastructure far above and beyond what is necessary to support content that is mainstream, power-friendly, or irrelevant. And further, contentious content will likely be cut off from being funded through people-power, as was shown by the speed with which Paypal, Mastercard and Visa, representing almost all the conventional and easy ways to send money over the Internet, moved to cut off Wikileaks.
And Bruce Sterling, who knows from cyberpunkage, also just produced a wonderful precis for a novel about Wikileaks; it’s fun to read, and it even bears a distinct resemblance to reality (if reality were a Bruce Sterling novel):
Then there is Julian Assange, who is a pure-dye underground computer hacker. Julian doesn’t break into systems at the moment, but he’s not an “ex-hacker,” he’s the silver-plated real deal, the true avant-garde. Julian is a child of the underground hacker milieu, the digital-native as twenty-first century cypherpunk. As far as I can figure, Julian has never found any other line of work that bore any interest for him.
Through dint of years of cunning effort, Assange has worked himself into a position where his “computer crimes” are mainly political. They’re probably not even crimes. They are “leaks.” Leaks are nothing special. They are tidbits from the powerful that every journalist gets on occasion, like crumbs of fishfood on the top of the media tank.
Only, this time, thanks to Manning, Assange has brought in a massive truckload of media fishfood. It’s not just some titillating, scandalous, floating crumbs. There’s a quarter of a million of them. He’s become the one-man global McDonald’s of leaks.
Ever the detail-freak, Assange in fact hasn’t shipped all the cables he received from Manning. Instead, he cunningly encrypted the cables and distributed them worldwide to thousands of fellow-travellers. This stunt sounds technically impressive, although it isn’t. It’s pretty easy to do, and nobody but a cypherpunk would think that it made any big difference to anybody. It’s part and parcel of Assange’s other characteristic activities, such as his inability to pack books inside a box while leaving any empty space.
While others stare in awe at Assange’s many otherworldly aspects — his hairstyle, his neatness, too-precise speech, his post-national life out of a laptop bag — I can recognize him as pure triple-A outsider geek. Man, I know a thousand modern weirdos like that, and every single one of them seems to be on my Twitter stream screaming support for Assange because they can recognize him as a brother and a class ally. They are in holy awe of him because, for the first time, their mostly-imaginary and lastingly resentful underclass has landed a serious blow in a public arena. Julian Assange has hacked a superpower.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised any more by the persistent misrepresentation of what Assange is after. No matter how many times you repeat “The goal is justice, transparency is just a means to an end”, people with a vested interest in the status quo will reframe you as a radical advocate for transparency. Here, Bruce Sterling claims to read the tea leaves to divine the deep mystery of Assange’s motivations based on Bruce’s familiarity with other people who he thinks resemble him. Maybe could we dispense with the crystal ball and actually read what Assange has written about what he is doing and listen to his public statements? 4chan and the hacker community could also learn something, since they’ve rallied around him as a symbol for an orthodox hacker ideology that he actually seems disagree with, and has ejected people from his organization for inflexibly adhering to. And for good reason, because the hacker philosophy was never genuinely radical or subversive, it never adopted any political position like justice, it stuck to the safe waters of meta-politics: information should be available, politics should be conducted transparently, all voices should be heard, etc.
Assange sticks his head above this bland crowd of empty slogan-chanters and dares to stand for something, and this cannot stand, liberals and progressives shout him down because they’ve accepted Hollywood’s ideological framing of evil as the sincere non-ironic attachment to a belief. Every movie villain believes in a cause, the good ordinary people ultimately defeat him, but not in the name some other true belief, but simply to preserve the status quo, so that the neoliberal capitalist system should continue unmolested. The failure of the Democratic party to offer any true alternative is therefore not the fault of craven centrists, blue dogs, etc., rather it is the left wing who is playing at radical politics while secretly depending on the fact that the “sensible” moderates will win out in the end. They’ll write a lengthy blog post complaining that Obama hasn’t done enough to free us from the corporate oligarchy, then we step out to catch a matinee and cheer the defeat of a fantasy villain by the forces of the status quo.
No wonder that every liberal Wikileaks opponent or advocate for the importance of discretion and secrecy eventually outs themselves as a believer that the US as a force for good in the world. One huge benefit is that the Wikileaks issue is a line in the sand for the left, we know where you stand.
(Update 12/23): Gabriella Coleman’s excellent response to Bruce Sterling should be read in its entirety.