How Wikileaks Is A Napster Moment For Democracy And What That Means For Net Neutrality
Wikileaks’ recent release of confidential cables hasn’t been that different from a newspaper publishing a story based on a confidential source. It’s just been a lot bigger. And the fallout is proving to be a Napster moment for democracy with net neutrality hanging in the balance.
Wikileaks & the Fight for Net Neutrality
In an effort to save face and reduce the impact of the leaked cables, governments are proving a more immediate threat to net neutrality than ISPs. As professors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu correctly predict in their book Who Controls the Internet?, governments will use a “number of techniques to pressure or control local intermediaries” to restrict content they find objectionable or threatening.
The UN’s efforts have stirred widespread opposition from industry groups. Recently, Google joined with the Internet Governance Caucus, the Internet Society (ISOC), the International Chamber of Commerce, and numerous other organizations to voice support for net neutrality. Together they published a joint letter and launched an online petition to mobilize opposition.
Early in the Fight
Of course, the fight is far from over. In fact, it’s just beginning, and it can go in a number of ways. As one Adbusters’ commentator put it:
In the weeks and months to come, we can expect a fight to the finish between the culture of the internet and the ancient rÃ©gime. It is too early to know for certain who will come out the victor.
There’s also no guarantee that the fight will stay confined to the regulatory level. Some legal outcomes may transcend what users can access and alter user behavior itself.Â For starters, if Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, is charged under the U.S. Espionage Act, it will establish a new legal precedent. Then, if he’s convicted, it may change forever the way we share content online.
Imagine what our online world might look like if all governments imposed China-like controls over information and access. Or worse still, being charged as a spy for visiting a site such as Wikileaks or sharing a link to it through Facebook or Twitter.
Reasons to Remain Hopeful
Many allies support the goal of a neutral net, and more reinforcements may still join the campaign. Censorship may also turn out to be too politically risky to support in the long term, and there are other reasons to hope we’ll end up with a neutral net, despite concerns over groups like Wikileaks.
First, the online petition and letter protesting the UN’s approach to censorship has the backing of several credible organizations, including Google. That kind of brand recognition and industry support can help raise mainstream awareness, as well as attract the interest and participation of many additional groups.
Furthermore, Wikileaks and Julian Assange enjoy the support of some influential figures. Early on, Republican Congressman, Ron Paul, came to Assangeâ€™s defense, arguing that he deserves the same protections as the mainstream media. Then, while Assange was in custody, anonymous hackers attacked Wikileaks’ perceived enemies.
And most recently, Assange was able to post his Â£240,000 bail due to the support of severalÂ influential donors, including Michael Moore. These are well-connected people who are willing to speak up, and in Moore’s case, have direct access to the media. All of these factors can put pressure on regulatory bodies to keep the net open and neutral.
Of course, with this fight still in the early stages there are a lot more punches to be thrown.
Even if a neutral net comes out the victor, it won’t come out unscathed. Somewhere in the scrum, it’s bound to get bruised. Now that governments have realized how little control they have, they’re likely to end up flexing their muscle in one way or another.