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Standing with the Net

Life is complex, but sometimes it comes down to taking sides.

I don’t mean about Wikileaks. As Micah Sifry [twitter: mlsif] has tweeted, “I don’t know if I’m pro-Wikileaks, but I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks.”

Me, too. Especially when the full power of government and commerce is unleashed against it. Wikileaks embodies transitional ambiguity in several intersecting, crucial social processes normally handled unambiguously by traditional institutions. So, ambivalence is a proper response, and, arguably the only proper response. (For contrast, see the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s reaction, by Mark Thiessen.)

I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks not because I know I like Wikileaks (although I do lean that way). It’s not Wikileaks that has summoned the wrath of the incumbents. It’s the Internet. The incumbents have now woken up to the Net’s nature, and are deploying every weapon they can find against it, including siccing Interpol on Julian Assange for incidents of what were reportedly consensual sex. (You’ve probably already read Naomi Wolf’s scathing, hilarious response.) [Later that day: Wolf’s casual assertions are likely wrong. The charges are more serious than what I said.] As Milton Mueller writes at the Internet Governance Project:

Whatever one’s opinion about the wisdom, responsibility and ethical justification of the revelations, it has shown that there is a new countervailing force in the world that the militarists and diplomats don’t know how to control yet. This is, on the whole, a good thing. It is true that the disclosure power Wikileaks invoked can be abused. It can do real damage. But in relative terms, it is far more benign that the power it is being used against in this case and its legitimacy resides more in public opinion than anything else. The hysteria generated by foreign policy hawks polarizes the world around the internet and its capabilities and shows that, all too often, those who claim to be defenders of freedom are its worst enemies.

Denizens of the Net are choosing sides. To my dismay, Amazon and eBay’s PayPal have decided that they are on the Net but not of the Net. When it comes down to it, they have decided they don’t really care for the Internet all that much, except as a low-friction cash register. How we would have rejoiced if Amazon and eBay had stood up to those who want to stop the flow of information that they don’t like. Instead they folded.

Amazon’s capitulation is especially disappointing. It has so benefited from its enlightened ideas about trust and openness. Yet, because karma does occasionally get itself out of bed in the morning, they will pay: What business is going to trust its data to Amazon’s cloud, knowing that one phone call from Senator McScrooge is enough to get Amazon to inspect or destroy its data?

I have my leanings, but I am ambivalent about everything in the past fifteen year’s messy cultural, societal transition. But my ambivalence shows up in how to navigate on the unambivalent ground on which I stand. I stand with the Net.

19 Responses to “Standing with the Net”

  1. Hi David. Very helpful and I generally agree. But it’s important to recognize a few more things, I think.

    First, there is now a War on the War on Wikileaks that is just as destructive to the workings of the Net and Web. No one has a monopoly on DDoS. And now we see attempts to mount attacks on business that really have no incentive to support the open ideology of the Web like you and I do.

    DDoS for DDos makes the whole world blind.

    Second, I think it’s helpful to recognize that the Web, in particular, has never been a good way to ensure distribution of controversial material. Serves are always vulnerable to the Heckler’s Veto and state pressure. It’s always been so. We should not expect otherwise.

    Most importantly, please do not be so quick to dismiss the rape charges against Assange. “The sex was consensual” neither captures the nature of the charges nor the facts as we know them today. Nor does it reflect the far superior laws against rape in Sweden.

    Americans too often interpret rape through the vocabulary we lean from Law & Order SUV. But Swedish law is very different and far superior.

    Please see


  2. Agreed wholeheartedly. Like you, I’m torn over “phase 3” of WikiLeaks (as discussed yesterday). But I am far more dismayed by the USG’s reaction, as well as the kowtowing of private companies to what they perceived as demands (and Joe Lieberman? Nutbag).

  3. RE: “What business is going to trust its data to Amazon’s cloud, knowing that one phone call from Senator McScrooge is enough to get Amazon to inspect or destroy its data?”

    The relevant clause in the AWS Terms and Conditions seems to be “We may suspend your right and license to use any individual Service or any set of Services, or terminate this Agreement in its entirety (and, accordingly, your right to use all Services), for cause effective as set forth below… (viii) we determine, in our sole discretion, that our provision of any of the Services to you is prohibited by applicable law, or has become impractical or unfeasible for any legal or regulatory reason”

    This has left me asking can someone like the Koch brothers call a congressperson and have environmentalist websites taken down / donations suspended? Is Planned Parenthood likely to have it’s site taken down because a pro-life senator objects to their activities?

  4. The relevant issue for the AWS terms of service is that Wikileaks is leaking *secret* documents, not that someone had a philosphical disagreement with them. Anyone who is pro-wikileaks is pro foreign espionage that hurts the U.S. and other countries. If that is your deal then fine. This is not a free speech issue, this is an issue of whether a person can publish secret documents that they stole from a government.

    The laughable issue is that in all of that, the most damning things I’ve seen mentioned amount to name calling between nations. These only hurt people’s feelings, cause people to get heir backs up, and do nothing in relation to “whistle blowing”, which is a load of crap. These governments are participated in private, many times secret communications that are not supposed to see the light of day, not because they hide some deep dark secret, but because some things need to be secret to be effective. Not every discussion can be had in public.

  5. Siva, I have no insight or understanding into the rape charges. Thanks for the links. But, surely Interpol’s focus was politically motivated.

    The Web has its strengths and weaknesses, of course, when it comes to “routing around censorship,” as John Gillmore put it. It will be just about impossible (or so I’m told) to stop the availability of the wikileaks docs via Bittorrent. In any case, the vulnerability of the Web to governmental takedowns, and to DDoS attacks, are reasons to defend the Web. It needs the defense. (Siva, I doubt that you and I disagree about this.)

    Jillian is referring to an analysis (I’m redacting the name of the analyzer in case I misrepresent it) of WL’s path at a Berkman Center discussion yesterday. Roughly, in phase 1, WL existed to provide protection to whistleblowers. Phase 2: WL became more like a newspaper, publishing the Collateral Murder video. Phase 3: Data dump.

    SanJose, I agree with much of what you say. Remember, I’m ambivalent. (I wrote about this a couple of days ago.) I am a Fellow at the State Dept., working with a group there trying to encourage need-to-share, and, although I haven’t talked with anyone there since the leak happened, it seems obvious to me that the WL leak is going to impede those worthy efforts. So, yes, I’m ambivalent.

    On the other hand, WL didn’t just dump the data. They went to four newspapers and asked them to decide what to publish, and to do the redactions. WL is publishing the originals that the newspapers are discussing. So, why aren’t we pulling the plug on the newspapers?

  6. […] Web philosopher David Weinberger on the need to “stand with the Net” […]

  7. Although Naomi Wolfe seems to feel free commenting in a fact-free environment, I’m surprised to see you riding along.

    Like you, I have no authoritative information about the rape charges. But I do know that the descriptions made in court include “forcefully” holding a woman’s arms and initiating unprotected sex with a woman then asleep. (Unprotected sex is not the same as the “broken rubber” defense.)

    This whole debate has become tribal, with supporters and opponents rallying to “their side” without apparent regard to facts. Trying to deal with complex questions on some basis other than “our side versus the other side” isn’t faring well at all.

    Yes of course, “surely Interpol’s focus was politically motivated” — although I’m not aware of a single fact supporting that claim.

  8. Howard and Siva, I’ve updated the post. Thanks.

  9. “…this is an issue of whether a person can publish secret documents that they stole from a government.”

    No it’s not. As has been pointed out by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Assange didn’t steal the documents. Though Private Bradley Manning is often mentioned, I’m not aware that it has even been established yet that the documents were stolen.

  10. Thanks for a good post David. I’ve closed my PayPal and Amazon accounts and it feels really liberating. I also use Visa but find it harder to quit, there are less alternatives.


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