In an article in the New York Times, the Internet guru Clay Shirky commented on the US State Department policy of supporting free speech and open networks and their lack of a policy aimed at destabilizing autocratic governments. It is, he says, the same thing. For once, I disagree with him. From a practical point-of-view (and given time) he is right. But from a policy perspective, there’s a huge difference.
I believe promoting universal ideals and values is better than supporting subversive organizations. I have a few reasons for this.
Reason I: Freedom of speech is not an end, but a mean.
I think most proponents of an open society would agree. The end is the open society itself: the democracy; the freedom; the opportunity for all to lead the lives they choose. Despite all its flaws, the most universal agreement we have on the issue is the Declaration of Human Rights.
Reason II: No One Path
No democracies–neither in the western nor global world–share the same history. There are radical differences to how democracy came about in Sweden and France for example. Both these two countries where once monarchies with a king who held absolute power. The method used to dismantle authoritarianism ranged from revolutions to reforms, but regardless of which path they took, democracy was an effect of increased demands from its people. Not the other way around.
Reason III: They might not want your help
What’s important is that whatever method people use to achieve democracy, is their method. Their way. Reading bloggers from the Middle East, it becomes apparent that there are inherent issues with being associated with technology that can be labeled in the service of foreign interests. (I have expanded on my views on this in an earlier post.)
Reason IV: The Neutral Network
One of the reasons that the Internet is a very good tool for promoting change is because the technology itself is apolitical. The inherent openness of the network is a major reason it got allowed into the repressive states to begin with.
In a parallel universe, where closed services like AOL prevailed over the open Internet, do you think Iran would have let it inside its borders? I doubt it. Even less so if it was not operated by AOL but by the CIA. And, even-even less so if the CIA operated it under with the express intention of bringing the Iranian state down.
Reason V: Outflanking Them
I believe that, in the long run, openness and transparency will prevail. I believe that once people can exchange ideas freely, the modes of the state will have to change. But it’s not primarily the US Government, or any other foreign entity, who should be the instigator of change. They can provide the tools, but should do so with care. The people will do the rest. In due time, perhaps. But they will.
Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association, to share with them his views on how to handle new challenges to publishing in a time of the Cold War.
Like with so much on the Internet, old things return for a second or third round, and that’s exactly what has happened to JFK’s address. This time, it’s forces challenging the status quo who invoke John F. Kennedy with the intent to prove that the iconic president would be on their side, had he lived. They latch on to the enormous cultural capital that the assassinated president has, to prove the point that the citizens of the US have lost their freedom of speech.
The videos have been watched more than two million times.
All the viral varieties of the speech focus on JFK’s criticism on aspects on a closed society. JFK implies that there are secret societies that must be exposed; that a democratic government must be completely transparent and that the press should be allowed total freedom.
Only problem is that JFK never said what video editors make him say. Not even close. The original speech is almost twenty minutes long. Something has been left on the cutting-room floor.
That “something” is a more nuanced message, and even some very outright controversial views on the relationship between the press and the state. And between self-restraint and censorship. The full text is, of course, available online for those who look.
WikiLeaks tweeted a link to one of these videos a few months ago, and more recently another version has been used when discussing the political uprising in Spain during the last weeks. The increasingly powerful hacker group Anonymous published a link without commentary. None of them have checked the source. If they would have, I doubt they would feel comfortable enough to pass it on. Both videos has about a million views each, yet reading the comments it’s clear that no one have reacted to the blatant falsification. So, there are two million people out there, who think they heard JFK saying something, he very definitely didn’t.
Faking JFK? I Can Do That Too!
To prove my point further, I spent half an hour in an audio editor and made my own version of the very same speech. However, I cherry-picked the parts that were not in favor of anything remotely close to a liberal view on information politics. It’s the very same JFK speech. I did not alter individual words, or even moved sentences in the chronology. I just deleted the parts that didn’t prove my point. Let’s just say, it’s quite another animal in my version. Look at the video below.
In a world where posting a link to Facebook or forward a link to thousands of Twitter followers is done in a heartbeat, it’s so easy to forget the most important responsibility: checking your facts before passing it on. Relaying and curating information is an important function for the net generation, but the readers rely on you. Your stories must be correct. I thought that was what scientific journalism was all about?
If facts are left unchecked and false information is relayed in an infinite loop, fed by the viral logic of the net, the Internet is just a huge gossip machine. (Not that any of us would be terribly surprised?)
The recent race to fund, what is generally described as, democratizing technology made me go back and re-read an article from last fall. Written by Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian exile based in the Netherlands and the Advocacy Director of Global Voices Online, it has the cumbersome—but quite informative—title The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism.
It’s truly an interesting read in a time where world leaders (and pundits) are trying to understand and explain what forces set off the avalanche of protests in the Arab world. A very common explanation has been to attribute a lot of credit to the new media landscape – and also to services created by western companies, such as Twitter and Facebook. Even though some weeks have passed, we’re pretty much in the eye of the storm, and it can be difficult to maintain perspective on everything that happens.
Interestingly enough, Ben Gharbia’s article is about the relationship between the activists and the western countries, written some six months before the revolution. At least to me, that puts some extra weight behind his arguments. Basically, he questions whether or not active western involvement in providing certain services are beneficial or if it is, at worst, actually hurting the very same struggle it sets out to help.
Follow the Money
My renewed interest in this topic—apart from being pulled in by the gravity of inspiring change—comes from the government pledges in the months. Millions of dollars have been earmarked for the struggle of Internet freedom and free speech online. Internet activists are the new revolutionaries; the sparks that lights the fire of democracy, it seems. Hillary Clinton made them part of the US foreign policy and the Swedish government where quick to follow.
I took part in a meeting at the Swedish Department for Foreign Affairs where representatives from the private sector, NGOs and academia. At the request of the Minister for International Development Cooperation, we were invited to discuss the need for support to Internet activists and how the Swedish government could assist in such matters. A vocal part of the group were entrepreneurs who were restless to get going with services in democracy’s favor. While I certainly applaud the initiative they show, I also maintain that the fearless quality often associated with venture capitalists might be difficult—and risky—to apply to development projects.
No Good Do-Gooders?
With some insight from the traditional NGO sector, I know that spending the dollars wisely is of uttermost importance, not only for the “investors” but also for the recipients. While there are many terrific development projects across the world, rest assured that they didn’t come about by chance. They are the result of a lot of smart people’s hard work and experience – some drawn from a lot of very costly mistakes.
The international “aid industry”—to use a quite derogatory term—has a history lined with failed projects. Some of these projects were small – others were enormously huge. At best, failure meant that money flushed down the toilet. At worst, it destroyed lives, societies, resources or infrastructure for decades.
Some secondary effects of the failures were even worse as it dented people’s trust in the institutions – both on their and on our end. Such mistrust is deeply unfortunate as it damages any opportunity to build strong civil institutions because they are—you guessed it—based around trust.
It is humbling to remember is that also disastrous projects were designed and implemented with the best of intentions.
Designing successful development projects, regardless if its support of an advocacy group, human right or humanitarian work, is not something to be taken lightly. In private enterprise, venture capitalists risk their own money. Nothing more, nothing less. If a product fails, the VC walks away with a little less money. If a development project fail, the consequences for people can be devastating. Say a routing protocol designed specifically to help Iranians circumvent their Internet blocking would be compromised, and thousands of people would be jailed because of it, can we just shrug and say: “Ehum, well, we tried!”?
Always remember that simply wanting to do good is no guarantee that you will do good.
My Unordered Checklist
While I realize that I might seem hesitant to the benefits of development aid, I can assure you that is not the case. But, one has to remember that it has it’s own logic, just like any area. I’ve outlined a few points, specifically with regards to Internet projects, that I think should be considered with great care.
- The beneficiaries should initiate projects. Trust people’s inherent capacity as well as their ability to know what’s best for them. Don’t master them or push technology or ideology down their throats. That would, more often than not, do more harm than good.
- Maintain a network that’s free and neutral. Political ideology is not basis for discrimination – it will only bring suspicion. Live by the values you preach and differentiate the medium from the message.
- Encourage strong civil institutions. They weave networks of trust between people. And trust build nations.
- Ensure sustainability. External support is always finite and the project must be designed to keep going, even after you’re gone.
- Last, but certainly not least: Work to fulfill the rights of people, rather than the needs of beneficiaries. Use a human rights based approach. Use Article 19. Live by it.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) just released an updated version of its publication The Enemies of the Internet (1.7 Mb PDF) today. The report, released annually, attempts to summarize the current situation and report on practices if censorship, arrests and other means to keep the Internet behind lock and key.
This years report has some interesting changes from previous years. Tunisia and Egypt have been removed from the list of enemies of the Internet following the fall of their governments. These countries nonetheless remain under surveillance, as does Libya. The gains of these revolutions must be consolidated and the new freedoms must be guaranteed.
RSF have also placed three democracies – Australia, South Korea and France – under surveillance because of various measures they have taken that could have negative consequences for online free expression and Internet access.
The introduction of the report is an excellent overview from the last year and should be required reading for anyone with and interest in the field.
(Disclosure: I’m a member of the board of the Swedish section of Reporters Without Borders.)
Listening in on conversations on the Stockholm subway, it appears that Arabian revolts of 2011 will be for Al Jazeera what the first Gulf war was for CNN. Suddenly Al Jazeera is a household name, repeatedly referred to by other media outlets and viewed directly by thousands of others through a variety of channels.
And it should not be forgotten that it’s also symbiotic relationship between the world and the people who gets to tell its story. It goes both ways. Just like CNN made the first Gulf war into the type of conflict it became, it is indeed very difficult to see where Al Jazeera end and begin in the recent upheavals. The pan-Arabic protest movements owe a lot to the efficient distribution of news between different parts of the world. Often social media in particular, and the Internet in general, are given a lot of the credit for this (and rightly so!) but the power of television should not be forgotten.
The International Audience
I believe that Al Jazeera’s underdog position and difficulty getting distribution by cable networks, especially in the United States, made them go back to the drawing board to find alternative channels. The result has been to have a great Internet presence, with live-feeds available for viewing on computers and mobile devices. In fact, I find myself tuning into Al Jazeera’s app ever so often for a quick update.
I can only speculate into the reasons for why they seem to gain explosive growth. Primarily, of course, there is the indisputable fact that Al Jazeera’s reporting is second-to-none. With western media houses downsizing it’s not uncommon for them to have only one reporter covering the whole of Africa, for example. Or the entire Middle East. It goes without saying that both coverage and depth will suffer as a result. But, there might also be other, subtler, reasons. At least some people surely appreciate the fresh perspective and the — often quite blatant – western centric worldview that permeate the outlets such as CNN.
Duh, Doha! Protests Heading Here?
With protests spreading like wildfire throughout the Arab world, the inevitable question is what would happen if the revolt would spread to Al Jazeera’s native Qatar. Historically, the TV channel has enjoyed unparalleled freedoms to act independently – compared to the standard in the region, that is. It’s not really saying much, considering.
As rulers topple and falls on top of each other in nearby countries, even Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is bound to be at least a little edgy; however liberal he is, he is far from an elected leader. Would he allow for the channel to cover protests in the same way they did in Tunis or Egypt?
The Emir has given Al Jazeera a very long leech in the past, and even though he is considered a liberal leader, with his eyes set on reforming the status quo, somewhere in the sand there is a red line.
Like in many countries (insert standard caveat that the West is also doing it) the Internet is filtered in Qatar. Mostly the filter is designed to block pornography and alternative critical views on Islam, but a lot of other information is also difficult to access, either by design or mistake. To add insult to injury, another category that is quite tightly regulated is access to censorship circumvention tools, in the likes of Psiphon, TOR and other proxy servers.
One thing that always worries me is state control over central data exchanges, and Qatar, though its national telecommunications company Qtel, is no different.
By centralizing exchange though a single point there’s always the temptation to tamper with the data, simply because it’s easy to do it. Pulling the plug on the Internet is infinitely harder if there’s a plethora of exchanges, each operating independently of one another. If pushed into a corner, would the Emir use his power to further limit free expression? It’s hardly inconceivable. Would he flick the kill-switch? Probably not. Qatar is a huge economy, with the highest GDP per capita on the planet, and such a country would have a meltdown in a matter of hours following a complete disruption of communications.
Avoiding the FUD
Al Jazeera has matured into a solid product and they’ve proven themselves over and over again in the last 15 years. In the last months their influence have been pivotal the development of a whole region. As with any news organization its motives and loyalties can be questioned – and they should be! Just like we discuss media centralization and ownership in the western sphere. That discussion should not however, spread fear, uncertainty and doubt on whether or not Al Jazeera is a legitimate player in a globalized world.
It only took a few revolutions to prove it.
German Member of Parliament, Malte Spitz (blog), sued his mobile phone operator T-Mobile to obtain access to the data (Google translation) they had on him. After a lengthy legal process he won and received about half the data they had in their possesion.
Relating to “data” as an abstract can be difficult, because it doesn’t put it in any meaningful context. Spitz, together with the newspaper Zeit Online, decided to make an attempt at providing that context.
The result is an absolutely fantastic page where you can backtrack Spitz’s whereabouts. By combining geospatial data with other publically accessible information, such as Twitter posts, it’s an effective display of the power and insight the Data Retention directive give whoever can access the data. (The page is in German, but the Google translation should be enough. Press the Play-button, and adjust speed using the lever labeled Geschwindigkeit.)
What They Know
The phone companies store what is called Call Data Record, or CDR for short, containing meta data on the service they provide, such as information on the service type, telephone numbers, the length of the call, its duration and what cell towers were involved in relaying the call. The CDRs were originally designed for internal use, primarily for accounting, but are now stored for a minimum of six month to provide records for law enforcements.
Without going into too much detail on the contents of the Data Retention Directive (2006/24/EC) it is worth noting that its scope goes well beyond what Spitz received from T-Mobile. The contents of all text messages are also stored; the URLs of visited webpages and sent emails too.
It would be interesting to replicate Herr Spitz’s move in other countries to see the reactions from authorities and the from the phone companies. The amount of location data you would get on yourself would certainly put the likes of Gowalla or Foursquare out if business in a heartbeat!
Whom Do We Trust
What really worries me is how much we trust our authorities. Even though Europe is quite stable politically, we seem to have forgotten many of the lessons of our past and the importance of not centralizing too much of information about people in the hands of a few. Remember that political stability, historically speaking, is an anomaly. Even in Europe at this time, certain developments should remind us that we should never take a democratic consensus for granted. There’s also the lesson we learn from the rest of the world. Imagine how tools like this could be used in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya.
One could even argue that passing western laws like this enable misuse in other countries simple because we create tools that enables it. Western companies develop most of the software and hardware that power the global communications infrastructure. Everything that gets developed in the western world eventually find its way to rouge states – if not via official exports then though the black market. Creating a data retention solution, like Narus Insight or (the aptly named) HP Dragon, is well beyond the reach of most countries if they had to do it themselves.
From a global perspective, it puts us on a very slippery slope. Maybe west needs to accept responsibility for misuse of the tools we unleash upon the world?
The recent turmoil in the Arab countries, and the hope that we will see democracy in a region of the world where despotism has been norm for decades, has made politicians to turn to new technologies for cues on the future of international aid.
Only days apart, both the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the Swedish minister for development cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, has made public announcements that resources will be made available to develop Internet technologies in the service of democracy (link in Swedish).
The approach from the Swedish government is pretty hands-on and through a public invitation (link in Swedish) there’s a call for suggestions on how best to use the resources. Bambuser, the streaming video service, has been mentioned (link in Swedish) as an example of technology that could be interesting. I also hope for more radical projects like Freedom Box (even though it might be sensitive considering it can also be used to circumvent “our own” laws?).
Net activists are encouraged to contribute at a meeting held on March 10th.
A Silver Bullet?
It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I’m believer in international aid and democratization. And, that I believe that technology can play an important role in redefining societies. At the same time it is important to consider that technology itself is not an end but merely a mean. While the Internet surely played a part in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it should not be considered a silver bullet. This is not the first time that new technologies are catalysts in revolutions. Just imagine how the telegraph changed the world. Or the phone system. Or radio!
In fact, I would suggest that any societal shift in paradigm have been, to some extent, enabled by the use of new technology. At the same time, there was never a guarantee that all societies with access to the same technology would evolve along the same path.
The most important role for new media is to increase access to the public sphere, strengthen civil society and providing a channel for news, views and reports from the most remote corners of the world. It’s a slow-moving and tedious job.
The Tunisian manipulation of the login forms on some of the world’s biggest sites could be a much needed wakeup call for more a more security aware approach to internet-based communication. The hack, if that’s an appropriate word in this context, potentially allowed the Tunisian government to get access to the private communication of hundreds of thousands of users – in the midst of violent nationwide protests.
One of the worst things that can happen to people protesting against an oppressive regime is to have their adversaries spying on them. Some information is by nature public, such as twitter feeds – and nobody should be surprised that governments are monitoring that information. But, there’s also tons of private correspondence, where the sender might be less careful with keeping their identity hidden. Think email, Facebook messages and closed groups.
The Tunisian case is, as far as I know, the only example we have where we have actual code to analyze. But without doubt, the method has been used before by other entities: whoever has control over a network, can insert malicious scripts as easily as child’s play. If you target the attack to only affect a smaller number of people – or even one specific individual – the chances of getting caught are very, very slim.
Most seem to be agreeing that the government instigated the Tunisian hack. The timing would certainly suggest so. The code however, bears no mark of a bureaucratic pen. Quite the opposite, actually.
The script that was inserted has some interesting traits. For some reason, the developer chose to name the functions using Leetspeak. We can find hAAAQ3d (hacked), wo0dh3ad (woodhead), us3r (user), pa55 (pass), h6h (hash) and inv0k (invoke) in right there in the code.
Leetspeak, the habit of replacing some characters with a digit (or other symbol), is a cliché of the hacker community. One of the first things you do, if you want to be taken seriously in the hacker underground, is to not speak leet. Yet, for some reason, leet pops up in this of all places.
The only reason I find to explain it is if the Tunisian government was trying to conceal its involvement and overcompensated. Big time.
Today I was a guest at TV4 Nyhetsmorgon, the morning show of Sweden’s biggest tv-channel. On the agenda were the threats against the Internet, with a backdrop of the Wikileaks events. It even included a live-feed from Bahnhof, an ISP, said to house some of Wikileaks’ servers. (“Just how exiting can it be to look at servers?”, I can hear you ask. Well, take a look above!)
My role was to represent Reporters without borders and by my side was Joakim Jardenberg, an Internet aficionado and a very charismatic person at that. He’s also made a follow-up video (sorry folks, only Swedish) on his blog.
I won’t translate the whole discussion we had for you non-Swedish readers. I will, however, write a few things on the things I didn’t talk about. Time is always short in broadcast, and a few technical hiccups made our time in the limelight even shorter.
I would prefer not to get stuck on debating the pros or cons on Wikileaks and their editorial structures or procedures. At the same time the issue is unavoidable as a starting-point of any discussions around freedom on the Internet today.
On Wikileaks’ position and the general sentiment
The amount of pressure on Wikileaks right now is quite extraordinary, and — without sounding too dramatic — I believe the the world is truly at a pivotal moment: either the governments win and there will be a precedent set that publishing state secrets will get your media outlet shut down — just like in China or Iran. Print or broadcast news will succumb too. Or, we stand firm, shoulder to shoulder, and defend publishing such materials in the spirit of transparency.
Wikileaks is not a source. Wikileaks is a publisher. I simply fail to see the difference between Wikileaks, who published the information they got from a source, and the thousands of media outlets who re-published what they got from Wikileaks. If we allow Wikileaks to be identified as a legitimate target, then I can guarantee that the traditional media will be next. All in the name of national security.
On Wikileaks as an organization
As to the lack of transparency within Wikileaks, even though it might be a valid concern from a certain point-of-view, is not something we ask from other media outlets. We don’t advocate the free speech of, say, an Iranian newspaper only if they provide us with detailed financial information. We also don’t grant our support on the basis of whether or not the CEO has good management skills. Neither should this be the terms we impose on Wikileaks.
On the “theater of war”
It’s clear that publishing will change after Wikileaks. The emergence of the Internet over the last decade seems to have come to a crescendo. Journalism is evolving into a new paradigm. In the end, this is not only about Wikileaks. It’s about the future of publishing in a landscape where people have unprecedented access to technology. Where actors are small and mobile. And, where tech-savvy people will enjoy a higher degree of freedom than their neighbors — unless something is done.
We’re used to fighting for freedom of speech in other parts of the world than our own. Suddenly it’s on our turf: and the attacks on the Internet infrastructure are quite mind-boggling. The massive DDoS attacks on both servers and infrastructure are most likely done, at least in part, by a state actor. If that is not a direct attack on free speech, I don’t know what is?
The government’s are not shooting at journalists with bullets this time; but they are firing with other weapons. And these new guns might be just as deadly, and they’re aimed at the world-we-once-knew.
PS. As yet another bonus for you who understand Swedish, there’s a clip below where I speak about these things on the radio last Sunday. I know, this whole post is a shameless self-plug, but please bear with me.
Six years ago, almost to the day, I blogged about why it’d probably be a good idea to allow the UN to assert more control over the Internets infrastructure. Specifically, the post was about the DNS system, the technology that handles address translation. Time has caught up, it seems.
The other day, some 70 sites were taken offline, after the US government seized the domains and replaced the site with a blockpage (of the likes I’ve seen before – in Iran). Among the seized domains are mostly sites trading in counterfeit designer goods, but also some torrent sites.
“ICE office of Homeland Security Investigations executed court-ordered seizure warrants against a number of domain names,” said Cori W. Bassett, a spokeswoman for ICE, quoted by the New York Times.
My reservation, back then six years ago, was that handing over power to the UN would also, in effect, give some influence over the Internet to undemocratic countries with a censorship agenda. I thought that even though unilateral control by the US is not perhaps the best way, at least it had proven stable and free for a long period of time. It appears, six years down the line, I was wrong.
I’m thinking about perhaps starting a pool. How long do you think it’ll take before they seize the domains of, say, Wikileaks? Maybe I’m being cynical, but I think the DHS fear them more than they do of the (admittedly very scary) prospect of Smalltown USA being flooded with cheap designer knockoffs.
Now for the good news: being the Hydra it is, the Internet will probably heal. Or split, depending how you see it. Nerds control the world now, and a group called Telecomix has already started to work on an alternative DNS system.
Pentagon, with its newly founded US Cyber Command, is going all-in against an undefined enemy, with fear-mongers on the sidelines crying for blood. The state of the world being as it is, the question is if Wikileaks is going to be the first victim of this new offensive force.
Wikileaks, maybe more than anything else in the last decades, has changed the rules of the game. Whilst using the Internet to anonymously disseminate material is nothing new, the systematic release of classified information is. Quite understandably this is a major concern for the American military might.
Our system, based around the existence of sovereign nation-states has been relatively stable since 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia was signed into effect. It might not be a perfect fit, due to its territorial focus, but it’s the best thing we have to define and manage our world.
War on a Changing Arena
The concept of international security has evolved greatly in the twentieth century, changing from issues around the immediate military needs to a much wider and all-encompassing definition. The older definition is a narrow concept of security, where state actors dealing with military issues – for example the Cold War-era military tension between the west and the east.
A wider use of the term, however, also includes other issue as well as other actors, thus making it possible to, as an example, consider the spread of AIDS, or a coming bird-flu pandemic, to be an integral part of international security. However, the use of a wider definition also found critics among the more traditionalist researchers over a fear that the meaning of the term would be diluted.
While the rest of the world abandoned using the word “cyber” sometime back when Clinton was president – at least when not referring something out of a Bruckheimer movie – this is not true for some military theorists. The idea is that there’s a cyberwar on the just beyond the horizon. Some very loud voices are claiming we’re already knee-deep in it.
Without much public debate, the US Cyber Command began its operations in May of 2010, following a sense of urgency in defense circles of a very real and imminent threat. (Or maybe, as some would put it, there is a lot of money in pushing that agenda.)
The USCYBERCOM shoulder the responsibilities from several other branches of the US forces to “conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries”.
The Press as a Pillar of a Free Society
Wikileaks crushed, with a few swift blows, the information monopoly of the military. “Truth”, says Julian Assange, the site’s founder and iconic spokesperson, “is the first casualty of war”, repeating a truism that is rarely backed up with hard evidence. Going through the material, the cliché was proven. Not only did he documents show many things that were never reported, but it also showed outright lies and distortions.
With a very broad definition of security, the free press will be at stake. It goes without saying that exposing certain truths about how we wage wars; on the justifications or actions of troops, is a security problem for the military – and the long run, also for society. But, wait, why if so, do democracies have a free press?
The free press was created, in the liberal western world, as a vent. When the reformists set out to create a new egalitarian society, they deemed it necessary to protect the people from the state. One way to achieve this was by giving the people a way to scrutinize those in power.
Historically, one could blame the press for many wrongs, but at the same time they must be commended for being pivotal in many of the biggest shifts we’ve had every since: from the abolition; universal suffrage; the civil rights movement, to; Watergate. Without overstating the importance of a free press, it’s quite clear that corruption is much more common where the press cannot oversee, comment and criticize people in power. The vent is needed to protect the society from itself.
For the people being scrutinized however, the press can be a real pain in the ass. Consider for a moment the Vietnam War, where journalists had quite good access to the battlefield – and to the soldiers. The stories, images and films are to numerous to mention. It pretty much blew up in the face of the military. It was impossible to keep the general public at home in favor of a war that didn’t portray the solders like heroes, but rather the opposite.
Looking back it’s tempting to say that it seems like it’s impossible to win a war if you are not allowed to commit atrocities. But, the problem is that the people don’t like atrocities. They especially don’t like to see dead children when they’re having breakfast. So, the military came up with a new plan. Starting with the second Gulf War they embedded the journalists systematically.
By doing so, they could control what happened, the journalists were spoon fed information and given selective access. As an added bonus it experiences showed that the embedded journalists became surprisingly favorable to their embedders.
Controlling information and spinning events became paramount to keep be able to maintain support at home. And support at home is a prerequisite to keep fighting. So, the part of the mission is to always make sure the military is in control of the setting, because the context will decide how people perceive events. The war must be justified – and justification can be spun. At least, it could.
War is Peace
Richard Clarke, former advisor to the White House and author of the book Cyberwar, proves my point already in the title of his book. “War” is diluted to the extreme. His book has been widely criticized for being dishonest in many of its descriptions of supposed examples of cyberwar.
Clarke tells a story about a dystrophic future where Chinese hackers take down the Pentagon’s networks, trigger explosions at oil refineries, release chlorine gas from chemical plants, disable air traffic control, cause trains to crash into each other, delete all data held by the federal reserve and major banks, then plunge the country into darkness by taking down the power grid from coast-to-coast. Thousands die immediately. Cities run out of food, ATMs shut down, looters take to the streets. Sound familiar? You’ve probably seen the plot in some bad movie.
Even Clarke descriptions of historic events are flawed. Just five minutes on the Intertubes would have given Clarke better explanations: He claims the Slammer worm was responsible for the blackout in northeast of US of 2003. The Energy Department concluded otherwise. A power outage in Brazil is also attributed to a hacker when, in reality, it was sooty insulators that was to blame.
The danger is to attribute everything from teenage hacking to industrial espionage to “war”. War, at least as most of us perceive it, is a premeditated act from a state-actor, not acts of autonomous people or groups.
Just like the War on Terror before it, the term Cyberwar is not coherent. The objectives are unclear – so the war can never be won. There is no last battle.
There’s a dark side to this new rhetoric. It makes us think of war as a natural state: we’re always at war; war is all around us. It makes us think of peace as an anomaly. It implies a low-intensity war that becomes part of the fabric of our society – and makes us accept fear and suspicion as a part of every day life.
Wikileaks in the Crossfire
The introduction of a new domain for warfare is a premeditated aggressive move. The big question is how it is going to be used, and what doctrine will limit its application. And, how will other countries will react to network attacks by conducted by a nation-state.
Wikileaks is clearly a threat to the military, in their view. Remember the vague scenarios described by Clarke. Wikileaks, even though it is only the messenger – in the same way that newspapers were when it published the Pentagon Papers – has attracted attention from the power structures, and they’re not happy.
Julian Assange has been portrayed as an enemy of the state, responsible for jeopardizing the security of thousands of US servicemen. Of course, the fact that he caught the military with its pants down isn’t helping him. The action could, from the American perspective to be a defensive move, to protect national secrets to be blown out of the water.
One possible scenario is that Wikileaks gets attacked, in order to take it down. Beside it being a practical impossibility to take all the copies of the material down (simply due to the nature of the Internet), what would be the implications if USCYBERCOM attempted to bring the main site offline? At least parts of the site is hosted in Sweden, and to make things even more complex, Wikileaks are possibly even hosted under the protection of a political party with representation in the European parliament.
An attempt to bring the site down would be a clear breach of international law, and of Sweden’s sovereignty. It would also be a carte blanche for a whole new doctrine in international affairs, and essentially undermine the Westphalian system.
The principle of freedom of information is very important to treasure. It dictates that while we can punish the Daniel Ellsbergs and the Bradley Mannings of the world for leaking classified information, we cannot prosecute those who simply distribute, print or discuss the leaked material.
It would also be an all-out War on Journalism. And then we have to ask ourselves: how may people have died in wars defending that very freedom we now wage a war to destroy?