Wikileaks and the Control of the Internet

Op'Ed by Jérémie Zimmermann initially published in French in Mediapart

WikiLeaks has become the symbol of disturbing information that can't be stopped. Recent declarations and actions against the organization clearly expose the will of governments to control the Internet. From now on, it seems that both sides are fighting a battle that could be one of the most important that we must wage for the future of our democracies. On one side, those who would like to put the Internet under control, through administrative or privatized censorship, in order to remain in power. On the other, citizens of the word at large ready build networked societies in which the sharing of knowledge, freedom of expression and the increased transparency allowed for by the Internet must be protected and strengthened at all costs.

It is essential to debate about how the leak of the diplomatic cables is organized, drop by drop, by WikiLeaks, and about the security of the individuals mentioned in the documents, in particular to be able to detect the false rhetorics being spread about them: The cables weren't "stolen" by WikiLeaks. It received them like newsrooms usually receive anonymous brown paper envelopes full of documents. It also sought to minimize the harm to innocents' lives through the erasure of their names prior to publication.

But beyond the leak's modus operandi, and even beyond the confidential cables' content itself or its relevance for democratic debate, it is the reaction to their release by WikiLeaks that must be analyzed, as it unveils fundamental stakes for the future of our networked societies.

Joe Lieberman,  the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the US Senate directly pressured1 US corporations providing technical services to WikiLeaks so they would block its operations. Amazon, EveryDNS, Paypal and MasterCard all complied, one after the other, without any court order forcing them to do so.

Thus, in the name of a vague notion of the national interest, US and French governments attempt to politically censor the Internet. What is remarkable is that they do so by inducing pressure (political, legal and economic) on private actors who will ultimately be forced to make the "rational choice" of censorship.

These actions against WikiLeaks would already be worrying if they were isolated. Unfortunately, this insidious censorship by a political power instrumentalizing Internet technical intermediates is already being rolled out on a bigger scale. In Europe, with the "child protection" directive currently debated at the European Parliament2, and in France with the LOPPSI law3, this process is being institutionalized, under the pretext of combating child pornography against which such measures are totally ineffective. Little by little, the administrative authority is being legitimized as the censor of the Net: once such schemes are in hands of governments, they will easily be extended to other domains.

At the international scale, it is through a multilateral trade agreement, ACTA4, that rulers intend to allow giant entertainment corporations to pressure Internet technical intermediaries to filter or remove, more or less automatically, content they will allege to be infringing their copyright.

Whether it is established in the name of the national interest, the protection of children or the war against the sharing of cultural works, the scheme is the same: Political leaders or powerful corporations ordering private intermediaries to police the network, with an obvious impact on freedom of expression and communication. This parallel form of expeditious justice, bypassing the judicial authority, is a blatant negation of the rule of law. That is what the French Constitutional Court underlined in its historical decision against the HADOPI "three strikes" law5, which asserts the importance of the Internet for democratic participation and stresses that the Internet has become essential for exercising freedom of speech.

In the WikiLeaks case, the reactions from governments frightened by this communication tool that escapes their control has faced the uproar of citizens who immediately organized online to bypass censorship, creating hundreds "mirror" sites that are and will remain accessible. Quite ironically, the attempt to censor WikiLeaks has turned it into one of the most resilient websites of the Internet.

This episode demonstrates that networked citizens can successfully cooperate to resist the shocking abuses from government or corporations who, in order to protect their power and influence, try to control the Internet. It is now necessary to extend this process against any attempt, from either states or private actors, to erode our freedom of expression online. The future of our democracies is at stake.