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<nettime> Evgeny Morozov: Cyber guerrillas can help US

Cyber guerrillas can help US

By Evgeny Morozov

Published: December 3 2010 22:56 | Last updated: December 3 2010 23:47

Just two weeks before WikiLeaks released its diplomatic cables, Alec Ross,
a leading proponent of all things digital at the US State Department,
delivered an excitable talk at an internet conference in Chile. The title
was the ?battle between open and closed societies?; Mr Ross argued that
openness always wins. Yet barely six minutes in he managed to infuriate
his Latin American audience by saying that the network ?was the Che
Guevara of the 21st century?. ?Will you try to kill it too?? inquired
someone in the audience, anticipating that the US might soon feel ill at
ease in a digital, networked world.

Now that America has spent a week debating how to take revenge on
WikiLeaks, the prescience of that question is clear. Sarah Palin called on
her government to ?hunt down? Julian Assange, the WikiLeaker-in-chief.
Right wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh seemed to feel nostalgic for the old
days when ?Assange would die of lead poisoning from a bullet in the
brain?. Senator Joe Lieberman ? who this year asked if ?China can shut
down the Internet, why can?t we?? ? demanded that US companies stop
working with WikiLeaks. Several did so, turning the site into a digital
refugee, on the run from otherwise staunch First Amendment advocates.

America is yet to realise, however, that it is in its own interest to be
nice to Mr Assange. If harmed, he would become a martyr. WikiLeaks could
be transformed from a handful of volunteers to a global movement of
politicised geeks clamouring for revenge. Today?s WikiLeaks talks the
language of transparency, but it could quickly develop a new code of
explicit anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism and anti-globalisation.

Mr Assange is more of a college sophomore still undecided about his major,
than a man with a plan. There are two paths his creation could now take.
One would see a radical global network systematically challenging those in
power ? governments and companies alike ? just for the sake of undermining
?the system?. Its current quest for transparency, however sloppily
executed, could soon become an exercise in anger, one leak at a time.

Alternatively, WikiLeaks could continue moving in the more sensible
direction that, in some ways, it is already on: collaborating with
traditional media, redacting sensitive files, and offering those in a
position to know about potential victims of releases the chance to vet the
data. It is a choice between WikiLeaks becoming a new Red Brigades, or a
new Transparency International. And forcing Mr Assange to go down the
former route would have far more disastrous implications for American
interests than anything revealed by the current dump of diplomatic cables.

The lesson of the last week is that, in this new world, geeks have real
power. Plenty of them are already unhappy with the US government?s
campaigns to limit internet piracy, or its harassment of well-known
hackers. An aggressive attempt to go after WikiLeaks ? by blocking its web
access, for instance, or by harassing its members ? could install Mr
Assange (or whoever succeeds him) at the helm of a powerful new global
movement able to paralyse the work of governments and corporations around
the world.

More embarrassingly, Mr Assange?s fans are often the very same geeks that
Washington needs to court, in order to push forward its desires to end
internet censorship in authoritarian states such as China and Iran. The
White House is currently engaged in a fresh move to promote ?open
government? around the globe. Alienating those who rally behind Mr
Assange?s bombastic pronouncements threatens to stall progress in these
areas. Indeed, promoting open government while chastising an group that
puts ?we open governments? in its Twitter bio seems hypocritical to many.

What if the US decides not attack WikiLeaks and its partners? True, the
released cables are unlikely to undermine unpleasant regimes in Russia,
China or much of the Middle East. But in the future, WikiLeaks-style
organisations could be useful allies of the west as it seeks to husband
democracy and support human rights. Groups such as WikiLeaks claim that
there is power in information. But that power is made all the greater when
it?s backed by the thoughtful advocacy of groups, like Human Rights Watch
or Amnesty International, and placed in context by careful reporting from
the numerous mainstream and online media partners that assisted WikiLeaks
in its most recent release.

It?s towards these responsible arms ? and not those of rabid
America-haters ? that Washington now must try to nudge Mr Assange and his
growing fanbase. Handled correctly, the state that will benefit most from
a nerdy network of 21st-century Che Guevaras, is America itself.

The writer is a visiting scholar at Stanford, and author of ?The Net
Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World?, released in January 2011

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