I remember the day ten years ago a neighbor's daughter whispered to me about this new piece of software called Napster that would let you download music files for free. I tried it, and in late 2000 shifted to high-speed cable, along with hundreds of thousands of other Internet users. Around that same time, the American recording industry declared war on these Peer-to-Peer services, and users were compared to everything from criminals to communists, not always inaccurately.
These days, P2P is all a bit old hat; while many of the 1st and 2nd generation services disappeared under the entertainment industry's legal onslaught, they were immediately replaced by nimbler successors. Now everyone under 50 uses them, and nobody I know personally has bought a CD in the last 5 years.
Of course, the technology involved is very different, but the story of Napster 2001 has many parallels to the story of Wikileaks 2010, and the lessons gleaned from that earlier episode apply today.
And the first and most obvious lesson is: morality of the thing aside, you can't kill it. For the last several days, the world has watched our leaders play whack-a-mole with the wikileaks website; the only result has been hundreds of mirror-sites set up to host the leaked diplomatic cables should the main site be pushed off-line. In addition, word of wikileaks competitors has begun to emerge. Furthermore, if all of these were successfully driven from the Net, a simple zipped file stuffed with secrets could be released onto the various interlocking P2P networks noted above. And beneath all of these, in the very depths of the cyberspace, Ian Clarke's FreeNet--which was originally designed to facilitate exactly this kind of whistle-blowing--lies in wait as teh host of last resort.
The second important lesson is: if you can't kill it, you shouldn't bother trying. Most of those who have criticized the various calls for Julian Assange's death have done so on the grounds that these incitements are criminal/immoral. Less note has been made of the fact that creating a martyr for the hacker community--either in the form of Mr. Assange or his organization--would be profoundly stupid. The death (shutdown) of Napster did nothing but unleash a storm of technical innovation all bent on thwarting the authority that ordered this very same shutdown--bent on thwarting the record companies, in other words. And here we are ten years later with file-trading still flourishing and the music industry, by its own admission, in terminal decline.
And here's the thing: during its last days of existence, Napster executives were in furious negotiations with the major labels, and their business case could be summed up as: Après moi, le déluge. With us, you will get something; after us, the file-sharing world will fragment, and you will be unable to negotiate with the pieces. I believe that the international community is facing exactly the same situation with regards to wikileaks. It would be a much wiser course to deal--as in negotiate with--wikileaks, or perhaps one of its emergent rivals, towards an ethical protocol for the leaking of future documents. Otherwise, instead of files appearing with names redacted, we will have pure document dumps onto obscure Mongolian servers with no concern at all for whose interests might be damaged.
The international community ought to negotiate its own surrender, in other words, rather than face a rout.
Finally, the ongoing wiki-leaks saga bears a number of resemblances to the CRU Hack of 2009, in which private emails written by U.K. and American climate scientists were stolen from the University of East Anglia, and uploaded onto a server in Russia. The content of these emails proved embarrassing for the scientists responsible, but ultimately trivial. More importantly, in the aftermath of the event a number of arguments against this kind of disclosure were made that prefigured the kind we are hearing today. Scientists, it was argued then, will literally produce less science if their every utterance is held up for scrutiny. Diplomats, it is argued now, will be unable to do their jobs if some of the advise they give is not allowed to remain secret. Today, as in 2009, the public response to such arguments has been the equivalent of a disinterested shrug. Millions of people read the stolen emails; millions more are even now reading the leaked cables. We are headed, it appears, towards an age of "enforced transparency", wherein anyone that knows anything will be forced to disclose what they know.
The Internet has already made it clear that humans have an insatiable desire for music and pornography. Now add to these a third thing: secrets.