Sunday, December 12, 2010

wikileaks and the internet's long war

WaPo | Some historians like to talk about the "Long War" of the 20th century, a conflict spanning both world wars and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. They stress that this Long War was a single struggle over what kind of political system would rule the world - democracy, communism or fascism - and that what a war is fought over is often more important than the specifics of individual armies and nations.

The Internet, too, is embroiled in a Long War.

The latest fighters on one side are Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, and the media-dubbed "hacker army" that has risen in his defense in the past week, staging coordinated attacks on government and corporate institutions that have stood in his way. They come from a long tradition of Internet expansionists, who hold that the Web should remake the rest of the world in its own image. They believe that decentralized, transparent and radically open networks should be the organizing principle for all things in society, big and small.

On the other side are those who believe fundamentally that the world should remake the Web in its own image. This side believes that the Internet at its heart is simply a tool, something that should be shaped to serve the demands of existing institutions. Each side seeks to mold the technology and standards of the Web to suit its particular vision.

In this current conflict, the loose confederation of "hacktivists" who rallied in support of Assange in what they called Operation Payback, targeted MasterCard, PayPal, Visa and other companies with a denial-of-service attack, effectively preventing Web sites from operating. It's a global effort of often surprising scope; Dutch police said they arrested a 16-year-old last week suspected to be involved.

Their cause, from which Assange has publicly distanced himself, follows the simple logic of independence. One self-declared spokesperson for the "Anonymous" group doing battle for WikiLeaks explained its philosophy to the Guardian newspaper. "We're against corporations and government interfering on the Internet," said the 22-year-old, identified only as Coldblood. "We believe it should be open and free for everyone."

The battle between "Anonymous" and the establishment isn't the first in the Long War between media-dubbed "hackers" and institutions, and considering the conflict's progression is key to understanding where it will lead.