Monday, December 13, 2010

Authorities versus Anarchists

Well, there seems to be a bit of a war breaking out between the authorities and the rebels as far as the internet is concerned. On one side are the "official" websites of multinational companies that have lined up against WikiLeaks founder, 39-year-old Australian, Julian Assange. (Assange has been accused of rape, molestation and sexual coercion in Sweden and that country is asking for his extradition on those charges.)

For instance, MasterCard and PayPal refused to accept and/or process donations for Assange's defense and Amazon.com revoked the use of its servers.

In retaliation, computer hackers attacked by burying those sites in traffic, causing some of them to become inaccessible for a period of time. The websites of the Swedish prosecutor and the attorney for Assange's two accusers were also affected by the "cyberanarchists" (which is what they call themselves).

I'm on both sides in this. WikiLeaks recently posted over 250,000 U. S. State Department cables that did not always show the U.S. in a good light. At best, it exposed us as hypocrites. At worst, it caused damage to our relations with some foreign countries, forcing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to apologize to world leaders.

A group called Anonymous has taken credit for coordinating the attacks on company websites.

As a babyboomer, I was young during the period of protest that wracked the sixties and seventies - protests against war, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, etc. I was generally in favor of most of the protester's issues. Would Vietnam have ended as soon without them? Would schools and lunch counters and buses have been integrated as quickly? Would women have been given their rights as rapidly. I still think the answer is no.

We no longer march. The internet is the great hope of protesters and rebels in this era. We know much about what's gone on behind the scenes in Iraq and and Afghanistan and China and even Korea thanks to courageous bloggers. Now, instead of standing in front of tanks, freedom fighters blog.

Governments, in general, even in a free country like the U.S., prefer that shared freedom of expression not be so readily available. Governments, even including our own, like keeping their secrets. And it is probably in the national interest that they do keep some vital national security secrets. But the problem is, they don't confine themselves to that. In any debate about shining light on our affairs and keeping what they do under wraps, government officials almost always come down on the side of darkness.  They don't like being embarrassed when their private thoughts about a country with which we play kissy-face in public are revealed. They don't like being humiliated when disgusting pictures of the degrading way we treated prisoners in Abu Graib are made public. Their mantra is - "just trust us".

Yeah, sure. If we've paid any attention at all, we know that governments, even our own, can't always be trusted. Governments, even our own, perform any numbers of acts of which we, as citizens, might be ashamed. Extraordinary rendition even on people that haven't been proven to be terrorists. Torture. Lies.

For instance, are we absolutely, positively sure that Julian Assange isn't being set up for reasons having nothing to do with rape, molestion or sexual coercion? I'm not. I find it easy to believe that a word is passed from one country to another. "This guy is a pain in the ass. We need to neutralize him but it can't seem to come from us. Can you do something?" I wish I didn't believe governments would stoop to such behavior but, unfortunately, I do.

Ultimately, the authorities and the multinationals are in league with one another and have the vast bulk of the power. I think there is only a limited amount of damage the cyberanarchists can do and maybe that's for the best. I don't especially want them to topple a legitimate government but on the other hand, I'm glad they're out there. I do want them to be irritants to established authority. I want the officials to have to watch their backs because the possibility of exposure always exists.

The official world will probably always win in the end but the internet makes it possible for the underground to hold their feet to the fire - and that's a good thing.