Wikigate: Walk carefully in Cyberland

At the risk of throwing yet more verbiage at a subject already shamefully and tiresomely belabored, I am going to have my own, frankly opinionated say on the subject of the ongoing Wikileaks media event.

At the risk of throwing yet more verbiage at a subject already shamefully and tiresomely belabored, I am going to have my own, frankly opinionated say on the subject of the ongoing Wikileaks media event.

For those of you who have been trapped down a Chilean mine shaft for the past several weeks, I will first give the very briefest of summaries of the events surrounding it so far.

Those of you who have had anything like normal access to the news media can feel free to skim or skip the following seven paragraphs.

Wikileaks is a political whistle-blowing, non-profit website, which recently came into possession of more than 200,000 pieces of US diplomatic correspondence, and decided to make that correspondence public by making it available to selected newspapers in the USA, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain.

Those newspapers are now sorting through and vetting the documents, and making public the ones they deem to be most newsworthy – a process likely to go on for several months, at least.

In retaliation, the US and other governments have denounced the Wikileaks organization and its founder and leader Julian Assange, and several large corporations that once associated with and provided services to Wikileaks – Amazon, PayPal, the Visa and Master Card web sites – have all withdrawn those services.

In addition to that, unidentified agencies have launched what are called distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS attacks) against the Wikileaks home page. These attacks involve using massive numbers of internet-connected computers to all hit the same website at the same time, so that it essentially bugs out and crashes.

In retaliation for these governmental and extra-governmental pressures, a self-appointed avenger group calling itself Anonymous has coordinated DDOS attacks against the Visa, Master Card, and PayPal internet sites, which they see as behaving like cronies of the US government.

Other, less aggressive individuals and organizations have come to the support of Wikileaks by hosting “mirror” instances of the Wikileaks website on their own servers.

Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated but parallel development, Swedish police are seeking to have Wikileaks leader Julian Assange extradited to their country for questioning on two possible sexual assault charges for have engaged in unprotected sex with women who did not wish the sex to be unprotected. Assange claims that this investigation is politically motivated.

Those are the facts, briefly and truncatedly laid out; now, here is my take on it all.

What we are seeing the Wikigate story is not an epic tale of good against evil – though one in which everyone is arguing about who is wearing the white hat in the plot; what we are seeing is a black comedy, with a cast of characters made up of sanctimonious, violent zealots, each of them intent on imposing their vision of what is true and honourable on the other players and on the internet audience in general.

That said, I must quickly move to single out the agencies which have quietly and nobly set up “mirror sites” of the Wikileaks home page on their own servers, at not inconsiderable risk to their own interests, as exceptions to this condemnation.

Whatever any of us may think of the Wikileaks organization, or the validity of its project and methodology, most reasonable citizens would acknowledge that it has a right to its place in the internet sun. Certainly, it is not the right of some self-appointed, oppositely aligned zealots to blast it out of public view. The operators of the mirror sites, therefore, are to be applauded for what they are doing.

On the other hand, Wikileaks’ cause is not at all well served by groups like Anonymous, who, as self-appointed as are the Wikileaks DDOS attackers, employ exactly the same DDOS tools and methods as those “bad guys,” in what they have self-righteously determined is a just cause.

Though they apparently had enough good sense to realize that launching DDOS attacks against a site like Amazon at the height of the Christmas rush would be tasteless and counterproductive, the fact remains that it is not the right of private citizens to go breaking corporate windows just because they don’t like the company’s business decisions.

There is legitimate, peaceful protest, and there is violent riot; DDOS attacks on corporate websites amount to virtual rioting.

It speaks ill of Wikileaks’ own ethical standing that it has announced that it “neither condemns nor condones” these attacks. That position, quite simply, is both ethically cowardly and politically cynical. Wikileaks is content to let the hackers keep their case in the news, but not brave enough to say so.

As for the actions of Wikileaks itself, and the leaking of the American diplomatic correspondence, those, too, are open to moral question.

Democracy does indeed need whistle blowers who will uncover and expose governmental or corporate incompetence, corruption, or abuse of power.

Wikileaks’ work in the past, in exposing the video footage of some trigger-happy American soldiers gunning down a party of innocent people in Iraq, was a legitimate instance of that kind of whistle blowing: A military atrocity was being concealed by the US military, and deserved to be exposed – it was news.

But that American diplomats say one thing in public, and another in private correspondence, is not particularly interesting, nor is it news. Nor is it particularly interesting or news that much of what they say in private is arrogant or bone-headed. Arrogance and bone-headedness are basic characteristics of the American chattering class.

Furthermore, whatever we think of them, bureaucrats, particularly in the diplomatic sphere, do have some reasonable right to communication privacy when they are carrying out their duties. If they cannot trust that their reports to head office – however arrogant, ill-informed or bone-headed they may be – will be kept confidential, they will not be free to give the candid assessments they are paid to provide.

Nothing so far published out of the heisted documents points to any scandal on the scale of the slaughter of the innocents in Iraq, so no real public interest has so far been served in Wikileak’s violation of communication privacy in this instance.

All in all, the only positive result of this squalid affair, I think, is that is has made the public aware that, for all its current high-gloss appearance of professionalism, the internet is really still the perilous, gang-infested slum it has been ever since it went commercial.

It may teach a lot of naive and blase internet users to walk more carefully in Cyberland,.

Because, as the ghastliness of the Wikileaks debacle has shown, even the people who call themselves the good guys in this town are quite ready to rip you off and thug you out.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.