The recent weeks have seen some rather amazing – and
frightening – changes in the relationship between civil society, the internet,
and governmental institutions. While many people ignored the indiscriminate
release of tactical reports from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the
most recent release of sensitive intra-department of State Department communications through the “WikiLeaks” website has caused considerable
commotion beyond the – sometimes rather self-centered – online community.
Whether “WikiLeaks” has done the world a favor by making
governments more accountable, or provided a coagulation point for destroying
the majority of free and open societies we will only know in the years to come.
There are valid points that either side of this conflict can make to support
their intended cause:
On the one side it is quite obvious that no organization,
which has to defend contentious opinions, can survive without keeping secrets.
While governmental agencies are well-known keepers of secrecy, “Wikileaks”
itself is a case in point. Their internal organization is highly secretive and
opaque, leading to the very behavior that Mr Assange and his collaborators are
criticizing. A certain irony cannot be denied, when one contrasts Mr Assange’s
article on Conspiracy and Government with the reports that “WikiLeaks” is
experiencing significant organizational problems and loss of collective
intelligence after Mr Assange’s detention.
However, there have been credible reports that governmental
organizations have abused executive privilege (which is the source of authority
for setting up the classification system in the U.S.) to cover up mistakes and
avoid personal or organizational embarrassment. This is clearly at odds with
the intent of classifying information and there is no question that the First
Amendment protects the interest of the American (!) people to uncover these
abuses. Thus, Sen Lieberman’s rather threatening attack on the New York Times
is not justified at all.
While the discussion on the Freedom of Speech and its
limitation (you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater) must be had and may
even need a confrontational posture, the reactions of self-declared “Anonymous”
in the aftermath of Mr Assange’s detention are despicable, highly criminal, and
should be seen as a broad attack on the very foundation of democracy and free
A loose affiliation of self-declared activists, “Anonymous”
uses cyber coercion to force the will of a minority onto the targets of their
criminal activity. Companies that decide to no longer support “WikiLeaks” or Mr
Assange in their quest to release confidential information are targeted by the
digital equivalent of arson and libel. The tactics these people employ sadly
remind of a time in the early 1930s, where extremists on both side of the
political spectrum were marauding through Germany, terrorizing the object of
One may agree or disagree with the business or political
decisions of PayPal, VISA, and others to sever ties with “WikiLeaks” and its
supporters, but this does not give anyone the right to attack the property of
these companies. As seen in these days, these acts by the cyber terrorists of
“Anonymous” are highly coercive and in no way different from the terror of the
German Red Army Faction or the Italian Red Brigades in the 1970s.
Worse, their behavior does not end at the destruction of
business property, but has already affected the ability of politicians to
communicate with their electorate: when individual politicians are singled out
by an anonymous mob and their websites are vandalized or blocked, democracy
itself is being attacked – no matter whether you agree with the politician or
not. This way “Anonymous” takes away the very same First Amendment rights they
claim to protect.
We have finally arrived at a crossroads where the internet
community has lost its innocence and must decide whether to condone the activities
of a self-declared elite of cyber terrorists, or help to uphold the majority
consensus of how an open society should work and protect its members’ rights.