The WikiLeaks Ravage – Part II

WikiLeaks taunt the US government with a daily release of classified diplomatic cables. The US has reacted with fury – far more intense than during previous releases of military documents – and with unprecedented censorship that heightens curiosity and counters democratic values. US leaders simultaneously apologize to foreign counterparts whose confidentiality was compromised and pressure them for compliance, demanding the website’s closure and prosecution under espionage laws. But now the US confronts hundreds of sympathetic mirror sites. This two-part YaleGlobal series examines consequences of the massive leak for diplomacy and internet journalism. In the second article, researcher Johan Lagerkvist anticipates a contest between governments' intent on heeling web activism and netizens who long for transparency. Restrictions on internet use could spiral into greater resistance from young netizens around the globe. Note of caution for corporations or governments: It takes but one distraught employee amid their ranks to share secrets or wrongdoing instantly and globally. – YaleGlobal

The WikiLeaks Ravage – Part II

Inspired by a modern-day Robin Hood, activists battle for transparency and the internet’s soul
Johan Lagerkvist
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

WikiChallenge: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (top); Embarrassing US cable calls Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Robin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Batman

STOCKHOLM:  In 1996, internet libertarian John Perry Barlow called on governments – “weary giants of flesh and steel” – to leave the internet alone. Following the diplomatic disarray caused by WikiLeaks revelations, governments would perhaps ask the same of internet activists.  

Hacktivists’ reactions to the official outcry against WikiLeaks promise a challenge to state power with an intensified battle over the soul of the internet.

In “A Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace,” Barlow expressed contempt for state power: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”

Poetic and pompous, the utopian text pleads for distance. Barlow was disinterested in battling state power or revealing its true nature to citizens. Fourteen years later, an eon in internet time, elements of cyberspace actively fight the power and reveal secrets of nation states. In contrast to Barlow, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seeks confrontation and threatens governments that they can never rest.

In the combative words of Assange: To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.”

This reflects a radical shift in thinking in some quarters of cyberspace, advocating online activism to generate concrete offline implications. WikiLeaks, itself an elusive organization, entertained the world and angered US officialdom by leaking a series of confidential US cables: In July, WikiLeaks released 77,000 documents about the US-led war in Afghanistan. In October a staggering 400,000 cables concerning US involvement in Iraq followed. The unauthorized release on 28 November of 250,000 documents – diplomatic correspondence from December 1966 through February 2010 – was broader in scope and coverage.

The cables contain unflattering descriptions of foreign dignitaries sprinkled with cynical observations and occasionally sophisticated analysis. The most compromising revelation so far is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s endorsed spying on United Nations officials.

Positive fallout from cablegate would be sound public debate in every country about the definition of national interest and foreign policy at a time when mankind is more interconnected than ever before. A negative outcome, feared by US policymakers, is that unauthorized disclosures will hamper the successful ending of drawn-out conflicts. Ten years from now, except for historians and diplomats, details of the revelations will be forgotten. For the art of diplomacy, however, it’s clear that routines of intra-state and interstate communication must adapt to a post-WikiLeaks age. More importantly, attitudes and norms vis-à-vis a decentralized internet may change fundamentally at the policymaking level with far-reaching implications for grassroots internet use.


No longer will an unfettered internet be viewed as a problem for only secretive authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa inspired by Chinese censorship. To date, it’s the existing political liberties of the democratic world and the fact that there’s no global common power that makes Assange-like figures possible in the first place. Such persons would have serious problems country-hopping in authoritarian settings.

Citizen social activism has become a tangible threat to national interests in all countries, as the secrets of the democratic world are more prone to leaks than those of the world’s authoritarians. In early December, US Senator Joseph Lieberman pressured Amazon to stop hosting WikiLeaks within its cloud of web servers. Amazon denied that political pressure motivated its decision. Naturally, a company can choose which customers to serve, but hosting clients in Barlowian cyberspace is not mere business. WikiLeaks critics question the notion of cyberspace as public space that should be open, not segregated by market leaders or hegemonic political power.

The only way that high-tech information societies, authoritarian or democratic, can stem the Wiki-tide of collaboration among amorphous collectives of strong-willed individuals is the introduction of tougher national regulations and new interstate cooperation to facilitate a more manageable and stable information order.

Global-governance of the internet is only likely among members of the democratic club. While domestic public opinion makes this next to impossible, there may emerge some pragmatic, technocratic tacit understanding between authoritarian-capitalist powers and the bureaucracies of liberal democracies to stop the most radical netizens.

Stability and security are key for both authoritarian states and democracies. Therefore, government responses to WikiLeaks may neutralize impact of the report by Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to the UN Human Rights Council, due in June 2011.

The grand irony with the WikiLeaks revelations is that the organization’s ideal of worldwide transparency may be harder to attain if the governmental response is a new information order where states, regardless of the nature of their polities, seek to rein in netizen activities.

It will take great skill on the part of established democracies to convince their own people, as well as Chinese and others under the sway of propagandistic state-controlled media organizations, that tightening information flow in the West and accusations that authoritarians want to control free speech are nothing but doublespeak.

The only way forward for diplomacy is to develop high-tech encryption tactics and smarter management restrictions on which cables should be classified and who’s entitled to read them. The leak of US confidential documents is in itself the consequence of vast expansion of security-cleared personnel allowed to read them. This is likely to change. Already in the pipeline: 2.0 propagandistic public diplomacy, increasing use of personal envoys, fewer online dispatches, more exhortations for organizational loyalty.

The latest WikiLeaks episode reminds us that the weakest link in officialdom is the individual. This time his name was Bradley Manning. In the age of social media it takes only one disloyal or conscience-stricken employee, one skilled “hacktivist,” to disseminate encrypted oceans of information, logistically impossible in pre-internet days. The diplomacy of nations has always been a highly vulnerable endeavor but, since the explosion of social and commercial networks online, there are now innumerable possibilities for renegade organizations and individuals to expose, destroy and retreat. As with the “war on terror,” contestation is about powerful and hard-to-target asymmetrical relations, which is why elite politics and high-level diplomacy are under more pressure than ever.

In future history books, the “war on terror” after 9/11 and ensuing legislation to ensure homeland security in the US will no doubt be viewed as the first step to recovering virtual territory. The second step could commence in the wake of the WikiLeaks of 2010. The fallout is uncertain.

It can be foreshadowed that governments will craft laws that target citizen-journalist activities. Citizens’ unauthorized storing of leaked material could be made illegal. Another potential outcome could be state eavesdropping, monitoring and storing information on a broader spectrum of the citizenry than hitherto possible.

From Barlowian distancing from the powers-that-be, we enter a new phase via WikiLeaks’ electrocution of traditional diplomacy. This phase entails defensive nation states and their allies using nationalistic public diplomacy, harsher legislation against businesses willing to host political and civic activists labeled as deviant, more secrecy to conduct bilateral relations.

However, WikiLeaks may open a new chapter for civil resistance against a potentially more regulated world information order, making the concepts of transnational and global civil society more meaningful than ever.

The weary giants of the concrete offline world will strike back. Nonetheless, the youth/subaltern norm that exists in all information societies will continually seek to undermine state control. Against the world’s states stands a vanguard of internet-based transnational civil society – nowhere and everywhere.


Johan Lagerkvist is senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. He is author of “After the Internet, Before Democracy: Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society.” Click here to read an excerpt. Email: or @Chinaroader
Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization