Blog Post

WikiLeaks, the Broadcast Internet, and the Importance of New Media Assemblages

I do not want to belabor many of the cogent points made in the past week regarding the events surrounding WikiLeaks. I have found Glenn Greenwald's posts on Salon key for refuting the misinformation spread in the mainstream media; Amy Goodman's interviews on Democracy Now to be vital; and the Guardian's ongoing live coverage and editorials to be exceptionally clear-headed.

Nevertheless, I think it is important to comment on a back-and-forth taking place on the nettime mailing list. Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens posted an updated Twelve theses on WikiLeaks on nettime and elsewhere late last week. Just this morning was a response entitled Six Anti-Theses on Wikileaks (cryptome leak until nettime archive link becomes active) by the "Faculty of the College of Ontopoetic Machines". I think these anti-theses (probably named as such to create a dialectical tension) go more to the heart of the WikiLeaks phenomenon and its relationship to new media assemblages. I encourage you to read them in full, but I want to comment on two of them in more detail.

1. Wikileaks exposes the slippery moralism of global capital.

The corporate abdication of non-discrimination prefigures more scrutiny of online activity. Visa, Amazon, Mastercard, Tableau, PayPal, PostFinance, and EveryDNS: each severed their relationship with one or more aspects of the WikiLeaks organization due to technicalities. None were served with legal documents requiring that they stop supporting "illegal" activity; rather, some caved due to vague public and private requests by functionaries within US government offices. Yet, these business have no moral qualms as to provide similar services to the Ku Klux clan, homophobic sites and just about anything else. As to the decision to cut Wikileaks off they justified their actions via the legalese of their Terms of Service (ToS) or Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), contracts that we all accept as the necessary evil of using free services online. AUPs, once the interest of legal scholars or small actors who fell afoul of them, now become the prime means for ending of services to the undesirable. (Recall, for example, Facebooks' threat of legal action against the seppukoo project. This is a refrain that continues to haunt the online space; however it was never seen with such vehemence as with WikiLeaks.) Yet in a truism, this does not only eliminate the possibility of online activity, for the actions of Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal prevent the flow of electronic currency to WikiLeaks, requiring the organization to ask for either bank transfers (that are prohibitively expensive for people in the US) or paper money orders sent to a physical address. These actions by financial institutions foreground the linkage between online activities and their real reliance on forms of money that are still tied to large corporations. As well, the use of contractual language to engage in corporate censorship enables what is prohibited by US Constitutional guarantees, among other legal safeguards elsewhere in the world. Given the tiered nature of the internet---in that a hosting provider purchases bandwidth from a separate company, that probably purchases DNS service from a separate company---means that any activity can be forced offline by any intermediary if found to be in violation of the ToS. While you may have legal recourse via a civil suit, such an undertaking is oftentimes impossible due to the legal costs involved and the vastly unequal power differential.

The most pernicious result of the past week has been the actions of major media and finance companies in cutting off their support for WikiLeaks, not to mention the Obama administration's dangerous calls for prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act. As the anti-thesis states, this is a way of engaging in corporate censorship. Of course, corporations in the US are not required to follow the first amendment. Yet we have placed so much of our discourse in the hands of for-profit and non-profit online services that enable them to easily shut off the flow of information by referencing catch-all clauses in their terms of service. (To see what I mean, read the ToS for any site you post to regularly, including HASTAC, to understand how easily they can remove content that they find "objectionable".) This should strike fear into anyone interested in using the Internet to create a vital public. And it should additionally cause much consternation amongst those in academia who have outsourced their IT services to external for-profit or non-profit corporations. Consider that in many places e-mail is hosted by Google or Microsoft, library catalogs are hosted by WorldCat (who, by the way, does not allow you to search for materials via an encrypted connection, something that is often present in many school-hosted library catalogs), student services are hosted by Blackboard or PeopleSoft, and so on. Current legislation being considered in Congress, such as the Combatting Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) would allow the Attorney General to deem any site on the Internet to be engaged in "infringing" activity and make it disappear, without due process. The "cloud" is a disaster for unfettered speech, and perhaps we needed something like WikiLeaks to give us a wake-up call to consider alternatives. But what are the alternatives? Let's look at anti-thesis six.

6. Wikileaks suggests an understanding of a notion of networks as media assemblages.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the recent Wikileaks phenomenon has to do with what it portends for future networked tendencies. Given what we stated in anti-thesis 1, we ought to pay more attention to the movement of information outside of Internet-based networks. There is a tendency to conflate network sharing of data with the Internet proper, but this is not a necessary condition. Indeed, there are multitudinous methods of arranging networks of humans and things that do not rely on corporate or government controlled conduits for the passage of bits. Consider, for example, the host of artistic projects in this space just from the past couple of years: netless, Feral Trade, deadswap, Dead Drops, Fluid Nexus, Autonet, etc. These projects rely on assemblages of humans and infrastructure in motion. And, they rely in part on a prior agreement among participants with respect to protocols to follow. This is already at work in the Wikileaks project with respect to their main members. Only they know who they are; we are in the dark, and rightly so. This is an application of Hakim Bey's concept of Immediatism, updated to take into account a certain mongrel of immediate contact and networked activities.

Additionally, the projects just mentioned foreground a certain notion of slowness that works to counteract the notions of "information overload". If data transport relies on the motion of humans from one location to another, this will require a particular patience, producing a form of slowness. Nevertheless, this should not be understood as a pastoral call as voiced by certain proponents of, for example, the Slow Food Movement. Rather it is a way to reinvigorate thought and practice regarding human-scale machinic assemblages. What remains is the difficult and challenging work of producing long-term, permanent ad-hoc networks.

While "social media" might provide a certain number of benefits to its users, it is troubling to see so many academic researchers unproblematically celebrating the capture of activity by corporations. What is pressing at the moment is the development of alternative, non-corporate (but not necessary non-profit; see Dmitri Kleiner's work on Telekommunism for more details) alternatives that take into account what we have learned in not only the WikiLeaks saga, but elsewhere (see also the seppukoo project mentioned in anti-thesis one). Ignoring this opportunity means that we let the Internet slip more and more into a broadcast medium that allows "Letters to the Editor". To do what needs to be done requires, as the anti-thesis states, a radical rethinking of how we create assemblages of humans, machines, and data, and perhaps causes us to reconsider our notions of speed and functionality. This is not a utopian dream, for we have the materials and the know-how to make our assemblages anew. It is not checking out of the digital, but reconfiguring it on a a different scale. It is an updating of, as the anti-thesis states, Hakim Bey's notion of Immediatism to not remove ourselves from mediated representations, but ask how we can not only recreate those representations, but also how we can develop our own media on our own terms. To do this means shunning the breathy pronouncements of Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, and others, and engaging with the "difficult and challenging work of producing long-term, permanent ad-hoc networks."


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