The Internet’s Voltaire Moment

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Let me say up front that I am not a massive fan of Wikileaks. It seems to me that taking stolen correspondence and publishing it for everyone to read is a fundamentally sociopathic act, whether it is a rival’s love-letters or a government’s diplomatic cables. There’s no doubt that there’s a role for whistle-blowing journalism, but each betrayal of trust and privacy needs to be justified by the greater good it delivers, and I remain unconvinced that the cloud of hacktivists at Wikileaks has taken on board that the demand for great responsibility to accompany great power also applies to them.

For me, it falls into the same category as The Pirate Bay; there’s plenty to disagree with in what they are doing, but the crisis they provoke is fundamental to the operation of the Internet and we ignore it at our peril. In reacting to WikiLeaks and The Pirate Bay, both business and government have shown their true colours when it comes to citizen liberty and software freedoms. What’s disclosed is not pretty.

Topological Change

The weaknesses are not caused by Wikileaks. The Internet-mediated transition from a hub-and-spoke topology of society to a meshed topology is the ultimate cause. It renders irrelevant the control-point thinking from the earlier age of chains of intermediaries. In every place where individuals take up the opportunities of the meshed society, the weaknesses emerge. The challenge by established computer corporations to open source, for example, is a direct consequence.

The problem arises from the fact that those serial intermediaries believe the solution the challenge to their existence is to reinforce their hub-and-spoke control points. So we see corporations fighting back against open source, music and movie industry associations attacking their fans and potential best customers, and governments attempting to muzzle citizens over data distributions that are the inevitable consequence of an endemic internet being available to magnify the leaks they always have and always will experience.

Is Your Cloud Safe?

Whatever you think of WikiLeaks, the actions by both Amazon Web Services and  Tableau Software have revealed that they are willing to withdraw service from a customer without receiving a legal challenge and without investigation or recourse, and to spin it as a “terms of service” issue. It informs us as customers of web services and cloud computing services that we are never safe from intentional outages when the business interests of our host are challenged.

As our business activities (hosted on our behalf) and our software freedoms (mediated through hosted communities) increasingly become dependent on the unassailable business judgement of unseen others, we do well to consider whether we need to take those capabilities away from their single points of failure and instead use peer-to-peer services rather than relying on a centralised provider.

Wikileaks and Pirate Bay similarly stress the uncomfortable weaknesses in our various democracies. We see legislators denounce the medium, attack the messenger and attempt to legislate against both rather than engaging in the root-and-branch reform necessary for the meshed society of the Internet age. We will doubtless see new laws proposed which, in the name of stopping leaks, remove the freedoms of citizens to engage in the meshed Internet.

It’s sure to happen, just as thoughtless acceptance of the proposals from lobbyists from the giants of the hub-and-spoke era have caused the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the USA and the Digital Economy Act in the UK, both massively misguided legislation that empowers the powerful to eliminate their natural successors. Just as ACTA attempts to set in concrete the discarding of the social contract of the commons from copyright, so we can expect to see global activity to muzzle unregistered internet use. Doing so would push the emerging forms of open innovation underground and rather than protecting society and its economy would slow and cripple it.

Vote With Voltaire

So despite my great misgiving over The Pirate Bay, with its Machiavellian arguments that sharing must always trump copyright, and Wikileaks, with its irresponsible equation of the betrayal of trust with transparency, I find myself defending them. Not because I agree with them, but because the misguided attempts to plaster over the fault-lines they stress and expose will inhibit or remove the freedoms upon which internet freedoms – of innovation, of expression, for software and more – all fundamentally depend.

It’s crucial we echo Voltaire’s sentiment1. I don’t like Wikileaks, but we must collectively defend their ability to exist or face all we find that’s good on the Internet being made illegal.



[First published on ComputerWorldUK on December 3, 2010]

  1. I’ve received a number of e-mails pointing out that Voltaire did not directly make the statement attributed to him. The letter in question shows no trace of the comment. The explanation on Wikipedia is worth repeating:

    He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire’s attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l’esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire.

    All the same, the title of my article reflects the popular perception and the mix-up of accreditation of authorship takes nothing away from the validity of the principle.

One Response

  1. I very much agree with your article. I arrive at the very same conclusions through some different philosophical paths a lot less well trodden than Voltaire, where I attempt to dig a bit deeper into the issue of privacy/transparency and other of these not enough explored issues that people use to justify their actions a bit to simplistically

    “CableGate, Release Acts and the Pharmakon”

    There is a lot for us all to learn from this.

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