The major news feeds of the world are buzzing with the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in London today. Assange was arrested based on an extradition request from the Swedish government, issued last week. Swedish authorities had issued the warrant for Assange so they can talk to him about sex-crime allegations supposedly unrelated to WikiLeaks’ recent disclosure of secret U.S. documents. From blog commentary doing the rounds online, however, it appears that nobody is really buying the ‘unrelated’ nature of the dogged pursuit of Assange. Can you recall the last time you heard of an extradition request issued in this manner by the Swedish government?
Clearly Wikileaks appears to be a significant threat to governments, large institutions, and generally to the so-called industrial-military complex as far as their ability to contain or curtail information about their ‘secret’ activities. Tom Flanagan, an advisor to the Canadian PM, even went so far as to suggest Assange should be assassinated, sparking rapid retractions from the UK and Canadian governments.
Digital and organizational attacks against Wikileaks
Wikileaks has been the subject of concerted digital attacks in the last couple of weeks. These attacks, originating primarily in the United States and other friendly nations are strongly suspected of being, at least passively, supported by the US Government. Originally Wikileaks moved their servers to Amazon’s cloud platform in the US to be able to cope with the DDoS attacks coming their way. However, in a move many suspect of being due to pressure from the US government Amazon removed Wikileaks from their platform last week citing breaches of their Service Level Agreement.
Just a few hours after Amazon’s announcement the company who registered the Wikileaks.org domain Everydns announced the removal of Wikileaks.org from the DNS (Domain Name Server) database. The DNS database interprets the URL you type into a browser to find the specific computer hosting the website you are looking for, so by removing the domain from the DNS database, it meant people typing in wikileaks.org would no longer find the site.
While this was all happening, Julian Assange, the enigmatic founder of Wikileaks was doggedly being pursued. His own personal bank account hosted by Post Finance in Switzerland, a notoriously difficult country to have their feathers ruffled over such international issues, was frozen. In response, hackers supporting the Wikileaks organization launched a DDoS attack of their own against Post Finance, taking their site down (as of 11:30 GMT Tuesday it remains offline).
To combat the large scale attacks against their domain and site, Wikileaks then appealed to the web community at large to assist by mirroring or hosting a copy of the site on their own DNS platforms. To date more than 500 separate servers have responded positively to this request, making the takedown of Wikileaks in totality impossible.
During the Middle-Ages the possession of the old and new testament was banned by the Church. This information was considered sacred and only to be handled by the intellectual elite, namely the clergy class. Those who went against this were persecuted, or even burned at the stake for heresy, such as the Lollards, Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Harding and many others.
The thing that broke the back of the stranglehold the church held on scripture was technology, specifically the invention of the printing press, which allowed rapid production and distribution of scripture in printed form. Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press and moveable type, is largely credited with this revolution, which eventually lead to the start of the reformation in Europe. Prior to Gutenberg’s press, copies of the bible had to be copied out by hand, dramatically reducing the ability to distribute the text, thus the church was largely able to limit access during this period of history.
Breaking distribution strongholds and information scarcity
Wikileaks and the internet in general, has produced the same profound effect on the distribution of information. The music industry, publishers, media and the finance sector are finding that they can’t protect their businesses from rapid innovation, disintermediation and the destruction of long-held traditional business models because of this change in modality. Governments, and large corporations (like Enron for example) are now finding they can’t limit ‘damage’ by restricting the availability of information or data in respect to their internal operations, especially when such activities are illegal, unethical or morally bankrupt.
Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning (who allegedly provided Wikileaks with much of the information about the US government), will probably be looked back on in the future much in the way Gutenberg was, as groundbreaking revolutionaries who pushed the ‘system’ to evolve for the betterment of all. Right now, it doesn’t look like that, but with the momentum, transparency and global nature of the web as a medium, to think that this cat can be put back in the box is simply irrational or wishful thinking.
The finance sector, governments and large corporations have to get used to a permanent shift in transparency and expectation of customers and constituents in respect to information flow and availability. To think you can spin, lie or manage the public with false information is to invite the sort of disaster in respect to reputation that the US government faces today.