Thursday, December 9, 2010

With Friends Like Anonymous..

A group calling itself "Anonymous" has claimed responsibility for a series of recent attacks on sites they think are cooperating in the attempt to bring down Wikileaks. I think these actions are ill advised to be charitable, and distract from the real issues in the debate surrounding Wikileaks.

The tactic employed by Anonymous and others is called "Distributed Denial Of Service" (DDOS). It involves hijacking hundreds or thousands of computers and using them to overwhelm an Internet site by bombarding it with traffic. There are technical means that can overcome them, but I think the interesting thing about such attacks is how they cut squarely against the kind of transparency Wikileaks says it aims for. DDOS attacks are the moral equivalent of shouting down an opponent at a town meeting, except the effect is global, not local. The argument that they are responding to similar tactics by the friends of the US Government is the same one that has been used to justify mass slaughter throughout human history. That argument is as morally bankrupt as the actions it seeks to justify. I would be perfectly happy to hear that the government had busted one or two of these slime mold samples.

However I'm under no illusions that would actually change anything. The nature of the Internet guarantees people with any motivation whatsoever will have the tools needed to get their message across. Although hacker gangs, criminal cartels and repressive governments all employ tools to stifle the free flow of information these are ineffective in view of the technology and politics of the Internet.

At the technical level, the Internet more or less treats everyone's data in the same way. Traffic on the Internet comes tagged with technical service information, (e.g. web traffic versus video versus voice calls,) and where the traffic originated and where it is bound. What the network knows nothing about is the meaning of the information that flows through its infrastructure. You can "tap" the flow of data through a particular point, but there are other technical problems with that, beginning with the fact that a lot of the Web's traffic is protected by encryption.

At the political level, pressure can be exerted against companies or individuals that might provide services to a site a government might object to. Apparently under pressure from the US Government, several US companies that were providing crucial services to to Wikileaks withdrew that support. Wikileaks was "off the air" for a couple of days, but then returned, having found providers for all the missing services. For now at least, they have adapted to the pressure applied to them, and continue to release the diplomatic documents in their possession on the installment plan.

But even if it were possible to kick every prop out from under Wikileaks, the effort to surpress the organization's ability to continue publishing secrets would fail. Any website can be copied and made available elsewhere on the Internet. The process is called "mirroring." As of December 9, 2010, Wikileaks claims to have nearly 1,400 such mirrors operating. Recall that the infrastructure of the Internet doesn't know about content, so it will happily transfer any information from any site. The original information source may die, but the information itself lives on on myriad sites, each of which a prospective censor would have to take down in order to achieve its aims. Couple that with strong anonymity, meaning that mirrors can be operated by people whose identities remain protected, and it's game over for the party trying to surpress information on the Internet. These tactics have been used to overcome censorship imposed by repressive regimes, such as China. They are just as effective when used against the current effort to censor the web.

The criminal tactics of Anonymous are despicable and deplorable, but trying to connect them to Wikileaks is either cynical propaganda or misinformed punditry. Against the background of technical and political realities of the Internet I just described, I believe that Wikileaks doesn't need criminal attacks like those we have seen in order to survive. Engaging in that sort of thing would do nothing but detract from Wikileaks achieving its aims, and if there is one thing that is clear in this situation, it's that Julian Assange puts those aims ahead of any other concern.