Friday, 10 December 2010

10 December 2010

A thought occurred to me as I was watching the pictures yesterday of the student demonstrations in central London. Might this kind of mass street protest soon be regarded as, well, so last century?

After all, look at the internet activists who call themselves simply Anonymous, and who have been creating all kinds of online mayhem this week for some of the world’s biggest internet payment operations (Visa, Mastercard, PayPal). Aren’t they somehow more in tune with this new webby age we live in?

What we saw on the streets of London yesterday was pretty much exactly the same as what students were doing when I was at university in the protest-heaven days of the late 1960s.

What the internet activists are up to, on the other hand – organising mass computer attacks on carefully chosen targets – well, that’s something genuinely new.

There are, of course, endless ways of protesting against things you object to. Until the dawning of the internet age, the best way to show how many people opposed a particular policy or a particular course of action was to bring them out on to the streets.

Now, you simply connect up all their computers and jam your target’s web operations. Not so effective as a way of getting coverage on the TV news, perhaps, but every bit as effective as a way of making your objections known to your target.

I’m not in the business of telling protesters how to go about their business, but it is possible to imagine, isn’t it, a student movement of the future organising a mass web attack on, say, a university website, or a government website.

It is also possible to imagine that the action taken against WikiLeaks this week is likely to become the revenge attack of choice for targetted authorities. Deny your attackers server space; pressure their bankers, their payments operators; disable their social network sites so that they can no longer be used to pass messages between their supporters.

I wonder if perhaps the whole WikiLeaks episode does mark the beginning of a new era of online activism. Some people are already calling it the first cyber-war. Maybe that’s overdoing it, but I think some new battle lines are being drawn.

WikiLeaks fired the first shots by publishing their leaked material online. There was nothing all that revolutionary about what they did – it was simply an internet-age version of what the New York Times did back in 1971 when it published the Pentagon Papers (a secret US government history of US involvement in Vietnam which showed that successive administrations had been less than candid about what they were up to in south-east Asia).

Or you may remember Spycatcher, the colourful insider account of alleged MI5 skullduggery by Peter Wright, published in the mid-1980s despite the strenuous objections of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Leaking government secrets is a time-honoured form of journalism. (In fact, one definition of news is: “Something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to print. Everything else is advertising.”)

What’s new about WikiLeaks is, first, the sheer volume of the material they’ve got their hands on; and, two, the way governments have responded and supporters have retaliated.

It’s openly acknowledged that Washington has been encouraging companies that do business with WikiLeaks to suspend all cooperation. Server space has been withdrawn; payments companies have frozen accounts. And the pro-WikiLeak internet activists have gone into battle in response.

You could, if you wished, think of the US government – any government, in fact – as an elephant, under attack by a fearsome swarm of thousands of stinging insects. The elephant is, of course, much bigger and stronger than the insects, but if there are enough of the insects, and if their sting is painful enough, then the elephant will be in real trouble. The internet activists are the insects.

So perhaps what we’re witnessing is the beginning of a new battle for control of the dissemination of information. Internet enthusiasts like to claim that the web is beyond any authority’s control, that it is a genuinely open space, available to every stinging insect on earth.

But someone, somewhere, provides the infrastructure that enables the internet to function. And it’s that infrastructure which seems still to be vulnerable to government pressure.

So, notwithstanding the hacktivists, as the internet warriors like to call themselves, perhaps there is still a future for mass street protests. After all, as we saw yesterday, the police can’t control all the streets all the time.

By the way, you may remember that a couple of weeks ago, when I was in China, I asked on this blog if China is now “throwing its weight around, becoming more assertive, even more aggressive as its economic power increases?”

Well, here’s an answer (an answer, not the answer) from the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, as quoted in a WikiLeaks cable dated February of this year from the US consul-general in Lagos: “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.”

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