The Web Will Eat Itself Over WikiLeaks

We are at war, and I don't mean the literal kind. It's the first all-out cyber war, not between nations but between factions: those who agree with what WikiLeaks is trying to do, and those who oppose them.

Nearly everybody is picking sides. Amazon's hosting service ditched WikiLeaks after a day, presumably as a result of pressure from Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. EveryDNS did the same, citing its inability to cope with DDoS attacks launched by "hacktivists" opposed to the leaks. PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard have refused to handle payments for donations to WikiLeaks -- at least in part due to pressure from the U.S. State Department.

[ Check out a few samples of Cringely's long history covering WikiLeaks: WikiLeaks: A terrorist's best friend?. | WikiLeaks launches Web War III | Spies, WikiLeaks, and hackers, oh my! | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Meanwhile, Facebook says it won't shut down its WikiLeaks pages because the organization has done nothing to violate its terms of service. And Google is trying to be Switzerland, offering up links but (as blogger John Batelle notes) not stepping up to mirror the site in the cause of informational freedom.

In my last post, I accused WikiLeaks of acting more and more like 4chan. Well, guess who just emerge to defend WikiLeaks? That's right, that collective of 4channers better known as Anonymous.

As yet another fork of its seemingly endless vigilante exercise Operation Payback, Anonymous launched DDoS attacks against MasterCard, PayPal, Julian Assange's Swiss bank, and the Swedish prosecutors who are bringing charges against Assange for sexual assault. Still, it's a little like shooting a paintball gun at tanks in Tiananmen Square -- you can make a few colorful splashes, but you're unlikely to stop anything.

Naturally, some antileakers are reciprocating with attacks on one of Anonymous's own sites, taking it offline. It's a shootin' war, and no one knows where it will lead or when it will end. You'd best keep your head low.

I realize there are other events taking place in Tech Land these days. Google, for example, seems determined to roll out a new operating system every damned day -- Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Chrome, and so on. But I can't stop thinking about WikiLeaks.

Why? Because this is the single most important story to hit the Internet ever. It dwarfs the Drudge Report's Monica Lewinsky scoop, the Twitter anti-Tehran uprising, and even the Pam Anderson sex video. Never before has a small band of whatever-you-want-to-call-thems taken on every major nation simultaneously, twisting them into knots. But thanks to the distributed nature of the Net, they have -- and I suspect they won't be the last.

Also: Journalism as we knew it is over. No more trade-offs between revealing some things while keeping other information private, of choosing between the necessary secrets governments must keep and the public's right to know -- it's now a free-for-all.

Some are joyously welcoming the new age of near-total transparency. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. As many have pointed out, a world in which everything is shared becomes a world where no one is willing to share anything of importance. And if WikiLeaks chooses the nuclear option and releases the code to unlock its "insurance file," real blood may spill.

What will happen as a result of the WikiLeaks Cablegate? A tighter, more ruthless clampdown on information, with more serious consequences for the leakers. Imagine for example, if Julian Assange were a Chinese citizen (or worked for Apple). We would not be hearing again from him for a long, long time -- possibly ever.

I'll bet you right now the next session of Congress will introduce legislation that criminalizes what WikiLeaks has just done -- not just for government secrets, but corporate as well. I bet we also see more calls for technological ways to de-anonymize the Net, making it easier to track down people who post this kind of information. Instead of more transparency, we'll all be living behind the Great Firewall.

It's a shame, because overall I think WikiLeaks has done more good than evil over the last four years. I also don't think the U.S. government should use illegal means or bully tactics to take down sites it doesn't like; that's a dangerous precedent.

But Assange surrendered the moral high ground a long time ago when WikiLeaks failed to redact information that could put people in harm's way. At some point Assange stopped being a journalist and become an exhibitionist. While I agree in principle with the existence of a site like WikiLeaks, I can't agree with its practices.

What will happen as a result of Cablegate? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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