Joe Lieberman was feeling pretty good on Wednesday:
This morning Amazon informed my staff that it has ceased to host the Wikileaks website. I wish that Amazon had taken this action earlier based on Wikileaks’ previous publication of classified material. The company’s decision to cut off Wikileaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies Wikileaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material. I call on any other company or organization that is hosting Wikileaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them.
Amazon denied that Lieberman’s pressure resulted in their decision; asserting that Wikileaks had committed intellectual property infringement by posting material “without permission”—
our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.” It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content.
—as if the very notion of permission isn’t completely absurd in the context of leaked government information. As if, furthermore, the information produced by the American government were not at its root the “property” of the very people in whose name that government is constituted.
Absurdities aside, however, things were looking good for Joe Lieberman. A senator had talked to a corporation in high dudgeon, and together they “set the standard”; things were arranged.
What a difference a few days makes.
Wikileaks now claims 355 mirror sites, with more coming online every day. But even before the effort to chase Wikileaks from server to server had begun, the cablegate files had already reached torrent sites, where they are now massively mirrored in the peer-to-peer network, effectively woven into the fabric of the internet itself.
The rejuvenated global security apparatus that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11/2001 has met its match in the Internet.
Once the distribution is underway the only way to shut it down will be to shut down the Internet itself. Politicians should be aware that these are the stakes. They either get used operating in the open, where the people they’re governing are in on everything they do, or they go totalitarian, around the globe, now.
What’s happening now is reminiscent of the state of censorship in France in the decades leading up to the Revolution, the story of which is admirably told in historian Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-revolutionary France. In the eighteenth century, publishers required a royal privilege to legally publish books in the kingdom of France. Morally outrageous works and works critical of the government were of course denied these privileges; the publishing sphere’s response was to set up presses beyond the borders of France. The French appetite for the secret, the sexy, and the outlaw was met by pirate publishers operating beyond the reach of Government critiques could never sell as well as naughty books, of course—but in many cases the two were combined, in stories that told salacious tales of the nobility and their ministers which contained coded criticisms of official policies. Bawdy literature served as a form of encryption by which pre-revolutionary authors could ensure their disruptive messages could survive.
Then as now, such works set off an official frenzy of denunciation. The public executioner actually whipped and burned outlaw books in front of the Parlement of France in Paris. Such absurdities were but a prelude to the bloodshed that followed—and when we hear of Sarah Palin calling for extreme measures to be taken against a “treasonous” Assange (who is not an American citizen), we have to wonder where all this will lead.
Despite the outrages of the Revolution, however the public sphere survived the era. It grew up to become the Internet.
We don’t know what information wants, but it’s clear that informed people want to be free.