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Wikileaks, Hacktivism 2.0 and the Threats to National Sovereignty and Empire

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
20th March 2011


Very interesting essay in the Hungarian blog War Systems (from Bodó Balázs ), which has two important themes. First is how Wikileaks/Anonymous represent new threats to the principle of sovereignty, and second how they represent an empowerement of hacktivism 2.0, defined as ‘attacks from the inside’.

Read the whole essay here.

1. First Theme: Wikileaks as threats to sovereignty

Bodó Balázs :

“Sovereignty, in its strictest definition is the supreme authority within a territory. The three components of sovereignty: being supreme, having authority and territoriality have all been transformed by the rapid rise of supranational, supra-governmental political, economic, legal institutions, the formation and the consolidation of global networks of information, telecommunications, finance, logistics, extraterritorial corporations, and (private) justice systems. Since such external authorities limit or determine state actions in the fields of finance, economics, social policy, foreign and internal politics, military, or human rights, globalization was seen as a threat to the traditional concept of post-Westphalian sovereignty. Such external authorities made state sovereignty to be less and less absolute. But as Saskia Sassen argues, the interplay between sovereignty and globalization is more complex than that. “The strategic spaces where many global processes take place are often national; the mechanisms through which the new legal forms necessary for globalization are implemented are often part of state institutions; the infrastructure that makes possible the hyper-mobility of financial capital at the global scale is situated in various national territories. Sovereignty remains a feature of the system, but it is now located in a multiplicity of institutional arenas: the new emergent transnational private legal regimes, new supranational organizations (such as the WTO and the institutions of the European Union), and the various international human rights codes”(Sassen 1996). The institutions that override sovereignty build upon the land and the institutions of nation-states. But Sassen’s observations about the transformation, rather than the diminishment of national sovereignty only hold true because the supranational frameworks are always legitimized and authorized in one way or another by the sovereign states[6], and some key elements of sovereignty are kept intact.

Wikileaks poses a new, so far unprecedented threat to sovereignty. Its power rests on three pillars: on the immunity to intervention, on the authority its supporters vest in it, and on its ability to interfere with the internal affairs of others.

As the ineffective actions against its infrastructures have shown, Wikileaks is immune from technological, financial, infrastructural, and legal interventions. There have been several attempts to cut Wikileaks of the financial network, weaken its physical infrastructure or curtail its accessibility. None of these efforts could render Wikileaks inaccessible, and there is no sign of a more effective method to erase a service from the web other than those already used. States and governments, just like corporations, are as defenseless and exposed to Wikileakistan as much the entertainment industry is exposed to Kazaastan and Torrentia. I do not wish to underestimate the intellectual power behind the Wikileaks infrastructure, but from a government perspective one of the most frightening aspects of the whole Wikileaks affair is that it is so easy to set up a network that is so difficult to take down or to engage with. At the moment it seems Wikileaks cannot be woven into the complex web of institutional inter-dependencies. „In light of this redistribution of power, what would the solution for conventional/”atomic” power’s reassertion of hegemony? This would be to contain the rise of informatic power by containing its means of distribution. This would be by the means of national firewalling, and trunk-line disconnection or limited Internet disabling, disrupting infopower, but also crippling the flow of digitized material capital as well. This is problematic at best, as conventional power and informatic power are in symbiotic, the latter being more nimble and a step ahead of the former, and to attack a symbiote always means to cripple its partner as well. The logical result of such actions would be the elimination of net neutrality (the free and open flow of data across the Internet) or even the severance of typologies and flows of information across the networks. The symbiotic effect is that conventional power/capital is also hobbled, as the physical is dependent on the same flows of information across the distributed nets, disabling itself in the process. It is for this reason that it cannot engage in this means of retaliation, as it would be the digital suicide of the First World nation-state.” (Lichty 2010) As long as Wikileaks exists on thousands of mirrors and in thousands of copies circulating on p2p networks, the debate on whether Wikileaks is a terrorist organization[8] or a group of freedom fighters, and whether such a quest for total transparency is misguided[9] or a necessary step in the development of information society remains academic. Until the point where it can be proved that Wikileaks can be controlled – and if that happens, it ceases to exist altogether – Wikileaks is free to follow its own agenda and as a consequence is the utmost authority of the information era.

The second source of Wikileaks’ power is the authority its supporters vest in it. States do not enjoy the supreme and ultimate authority over their territory anymore, because their citizens as the source of that authority now enjoy multiple citizenships — one being that of Wikileakistan –, and have the potential to act upon multiple loyalties.[10] If citizens and corporate employees decide to break the laws of the land and follow the laws of their conscience and leak the secrets entrusted upon them to Wikileaks, it means that in the given situation they deny the supreme authority from the state and subscribe to the abstract ideals of Wikileakistan in order to preserve what loyalty they feel towards the ‘nation’, the ‘country’, the ‘constitution’, the ‘democratic ideals’ or any other notion which they think Wikileaks represents and which they hope to regain by turning to it. If Wikileaks would be Wikileakistan, another territory-bound sovereign, there would not be any problems: it could be bombarded or sanctioned into submission. But that lawless fringe, that barbaric kingdom, that pirate utopia is not somewhere else. It is exactly where we are. Confrontational, non-conciliatory action against such idealists hardly yields anything else but more disenchantment, alienation and ultimately disloyalty. By turning against such double citizens the state turns against, and ultimately eliminates itself.

Third, immunity and authority is now coupled with an unparalleled might to interfere with the internal affairs of states and corporations alike. External sovereignty is exercised “with respect to outsiders, who may not interfere with the sovereign’s governance.” (Philpott 2010) Wikileaks poses a different kind of threat to the external sovereignty than the internet, in general. (Boyle 1997) It seems possible to exercise authority with an aterritorial entity like the internet in place, but it does not seem possible to exercise any authority if the sovereign cannot control its internal processes, data and communication. Within the core of any sovereignty there is the ultimate capability to control the internal communications, information collection and interpretation processes. Assange describes the effects of exposing internal communications in his essay dating back to 2006: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”(Assange 2006)

The ability to place the state under surveillance limits and ultimately renders present day sovereignty obsolete.

It can also be argued that it fosters the emergence of a new sovereign in itself. I believe that Wikileaks (or rather, the logic of it) is a new sovereign in the global political / economic sphere. If everyday citizens have an autonomous zone (Bey 1991), a safe haven, hiding in the discontinuities of cyberspace, from where they can oversee and control the state apparatus; if such an organization is safe from interventions and can continuously enjoy the ethical and ideological support if its “citizens”; if the information it distributes cannot be filtered by any country, then such an organization is a new sovereign, not in cyberspace but in the real world, even though it lacks the territorial dimension.

But as it stands now, Wikileakistan shares too much with the powers it wishes to counter. As The Economist’s commentator put it: „To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.”(W. 2010) This is against what Wikileaks has risen. But the hidden power structures and the inner workings of these states within the state are exposed by another imperium in imperio, a secretive organization, whose agenda is far from transparent, whose members, resources are unknown, holding back an indefinite amount of information both on itself and on its opponents. The mantra of Wikileaks supporters and the mantra of state and corporate executives are shockingly identical: “We share no information on ourselves; we gather information on everyone else. Only our secrets are valid secrets.” The Eye of Providence on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, surrounded by the words Annuit Cœptis (He approves our undertakings), and Novus Ordo Seclorum, (New Order of the Ages) could very well be the seal of Wikileaks as well.

This leads to the question of who the parties in this conflict are. Is it the state against Wikileaks? Or maybe what we are seeing now is a battle between different secretive organizations for the control of the state and through it, the body politic? With Wikileaks the state has finally entered the Panopticon. But within, the freedom of those who are under surveillance is lost, whether they be individuals or states.

It is not more secretive, one sided transparency which will subvert and negate the control and discipline of secretive, one sided transparency, it is anonymity. The subject’s position of being “a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised”, its state of living in a “sequestered and observed solitude” (Foucault 1979) can only be subverted if there is a place to hide from surveillance. There are two types of Anonymity, that of the observer, and that of the subject, both immensely empowering. The true potential of the cyberspace is not that it enables anonymous observation of the state power, but that it offers its citizens the chance to hide from observation. In other words the identity-protecting side of technology has more emancipatory power than its capability to obtain and expose secrets. Maybe less, and not more transparency is the path that leads to the aims of Wikileaks.

We have also seen how Anonymous can turn into a “stampede of coked-up lemmings”. But how to be truly free in the age of ubiquitous surveillance? Is it enough if we put the observers under surveillance? Maybe we need to leave the oppositional power relationships behind, and be what Anonymous really means: invisible. Invisible in its strictest sense: being beyond the determinations that define the identity and the discourse. Because, as Pozorov (2007) so aptly said: “freedom is not a guarantee for the ful?lment of any desire but rather the condition of possibility of its pursuit.” Wikileaks, the latest manifestation of cyberspace offers this freedom for individuals, but its proposition on how to act upon it is disturbingly similar to what it defined itself against in its Declaration of Independence. I salute Wikileaks as the first – and potentially only – truly independent sovereign of the information age. “May it be more humane and fair than the world […] governments have made before.” (Barlow 1996)”

2. Theme 2: Wikileaks and Anonymous as expressions of hacktivism 2.0

2.1 Comparing Hacktivism 1.0 to Hacktivism 2.0

“Wikileaks marks the beginning of hacktivism 2.0. Wikileaks is first and foremost an infostructure provider, with the immense potential to empower mass-scale cyber-activism. Wikileaks offers three crucial factors through which the effectiveness of hacker attack can be merged with the ease and openness of mass actions. First, it offers a highly resistant, autonomous content distribution network, which so far has been able to survive even the most aggressive attacks against its infrastructure. Second, it has all the attention of the world, including key media organizations which participate in the verification and publication of the disclosed information. And what is the most important: it promises anonymity.

Hacktivism 1.0 was the activism of outsiders. Its organizing principle was to get outsiders into the territory of the other. Wikileaks, on the other hand, is an infostructure developed to be used by insiders. Its sole purpose is to help people get information out from an organization. Wikileaks shifts the source of potential threat from a few, dangerous hackers and a larger group of mostly harmless activists — both outsiders to an organization — to those who are on the inside. For mass protesters and cyber activists anonymity is a nice, but certainly not an essential feature. For insiders trying to smuggle information out, anonymity is a necessary condition for participation. Wikileaks has demonstrated that the access to such features can be democratized, made simple and user friendly. Easy anonymity also radically transforms who the activist may be. It turns a monolithic, crystal clear identity defined solely through opposition, into something more complex, multilayered, and hybrid by allowing the cultivation of multiple identities, multiple loyalties. It allows those to enter the activist scene who do not want to define themselves – at least not publicly – as activist, radical or oppositional. The promise – or rather, the condition — of Wikileaks is that one can be on the inside and on the outside at the same time. Through anonymity the mutually exclusive categories of inside/outside, cooption/resistance, activism/passivity, power/subjection can be overridden and collapsed.”

2.2 Anonymous as Hacktivism 2.0

“There is, however, another, much more important Anonymous (Anonymous 2.0) in the Wikileaks story that needs to be discussed: those powerful individuals in privileged positions within the existing power structures, who now can safely subvert the very power structures that they define (and that define them). If Anonymous is to be feared, it is not because some rascals with short attention span download a crudely written software tool to attack websites, but because of those, for whom such anonymity lowers the costs of exposing and confronting power from within. Lowering the cost of safe opposition is exactly what Wikileaks is for.

Being Anonymous in the context of Wikileaks has a double function: it liberates the subject from the existing power structures, and in the same time it allows the exposure of these structures by opening up a space to confront them.

Anonymity offers the chance for the individual to – at least partially – remove herself from the pre-existing discursive determinations and power relations and consider alternatives. “If governmental rationalities operate through the nomination and speci?cation of a positive identity through a series of constitutive exclusions, rarefactions and restrictions, then the practices of freedom are enabled by withholding the knowledge of oneself, resisting the injunction to a ‘confessional’ self-expression, declining the incitement to active participation in the governmentally sanctioned discourse. Anonymity may then serve ‘to encourage freedom by increasing the scope of actions not susceptible to official observation, records and interpretation’” (Prozorov 2007, citations ommitted). Anonymity is important because it liberates insiders.

Being Anonymous is an identity play, and as an identity play, it is a loyalty play. As an identifiable member of the society, the individual is bound by formal and informal attachments and hierarchies, the breaches of which are severely and instantly punished. Being Anonymous means that one’s identity and loyalty is up for grabs, it is fluid, it is independent, it is freed from it social base. Wikileaks, being the key anonymity-providing infostructure, supports new loyalties that are detached from the corrupted and failing national identities, the debilitating chorus of corporate anthems, historical determination and the normalizing judgment of Facebook peers. “People are asked to identify personally with organisations who can either no longer carry historical projects worthy of major sacrifices or expressly regard their employees as nothing but expendable, short?term resources. This […] creates the cognitive dissonance that justifies, perhaps even demands, the leaker to violate procedure and actively damage the organisation of which he, or she, has been at some point a well?acculturated member (this is the difference to the spy). This dissonance creates the motivational energy to move from the potential to the actual.” (Stalder 2010) When this happens, one’s ‘proper’ identity, one’s real name turns into a mere pseudonym that serves to hide one’s ‘real’ identity, one’s true loyalties.”

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