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WikiLeaks, the web and the power of the people -by Dan Nolan

The tale of WikiLeaks is fast becoming the litmus test of the robustness of the internet.

Julian Assange has been arrested in the UK and refused bail and the international scrum to scan legislation and precedent to find a crime to charge him with continues. Eric Holder, the US Attorney-General, has stated that they are pursuing an investigation to see if criminal charges can be laid against the WikiLeaks founder and all-round international man of mystery. On this side of the Pacific, the same is occurring with our A-G, McClelland saying there is an AFP taskforce set up to investigate whether charges can be laid.

Even our PM, Ms Gillard, claimed what Assange was doing was illegal, something that it appears may spark a defamation suit from the aggrieved Assange.

Sure, that’s all posturing and it’s necessary, but what is actually going on? Well if you’ve been keeping up with this fascinating story, you’ll have seen that WikiLeaks is getting DDoSed (distributed denial-of-service attack) constantly and has been forced to jump from server to server in order to stay up. There are two sides to this story. The first is the DDOSsing, it’s a bit of a nerd concept but it’s actually pretty straightforward. If you’re in a queue at say your local McCafe to partake in the great Australian pastime, you wait until its your turn and you get served. If say there’s a lot of people in line, the cafe will roll out staff and the queue will split. That’s how things normally work on the internet, people send a request to a server and get a response. Imagine that you crammed the entire population of NSW into this McCafe and had them all screaming at the staff to give them an order – nobody would get served. That’s basically the point. A DDOS is a kind of toddler reaction: “Well if I can’t have it, nobody can.” Though there are indications that the current DDOS comes from governmental sources, there is no real hard evidence to link them to the attacks. That’s the first half.

The second half is the political motivations of the companies that were initially hosting WikiLeaks. Under assault from this DDOS, WikiLeaks migrated to the biggest system on campus, Amazon’s cloud hosting environment. Not just a bookseller, Amazon operates one of the cheapest and easiest ways to host a heck of a lot of content and have the grunt to share it to millions of people. Amazon yanked WikiLeaks hosting a few days ago, under claims that they were in violation of the Terms of Service of the site. It would appear that Joe Lieberman had approached Amazon and castigated them for offering hosting to WikiLeaks. This is all part of the policy of making WikiLeaks’ information much harder to obtain and much harder to get access to.

This is the part in which the government is directly involved, attacking or threatening companies that provide support to the organisation to host the material.

An example of the information being made more difficult to get to is WikiLeaks’ DNS provider, EveryDNS, removing their record a few days ago. What this meant is that the URL to WikiLeaks wouldn’t resolve to the actual IP address that the server is. DNS is pretty much the phone book of the internet, you look up the person you want and the DNS advisor returns their number which is managed all transparently by your web browser. The vast majority of domain names you would purchase or use come from ICANN, which is run by the US. For domains to resolve, generally, there are several root or main servers scattered across continents that provide the ‘record of record’ so to speak.

This aspect of the current DNS system has lead Peter Sunde (of piratebay fame) to suggest a new TLD (top level domain, like .com or to be created by those wishing to make the system more robust. Ideally it would be called .p2p and it would involve people wishing to use it or promote it install a piece of software that would run in the background, creating a huge mesh of people that would share records with others. Think of it as a giant game of Chinese whispers but where the information isn’t corrupted as it’s propagated.

You’d think with their domain name gone and their site constantly under attack that would be just about the end of it for WikiLeaks, but it isn’t for one very simple reason, the Streisand effect. Named for whom you would expect, the Streisand effect is the concept that, online, attempts at censorship or stopping the flow of information only increases the interest in that information and due to the digital nature of the content, propagate it everywhere. Knowing that they were under assault, WikiLeaks created a ‘mirror program’, where you could submit a few details giving them admin access to a server you owned and they’d copy a complete mirror of the site over to it if necessary.

The fact that there are now over 300 mirrors and counting, shows that the Streisand effect is now an unstoppable force online.

As Mark Pesce said in his article earlier this week, this is just the start of things to come. The current WikiLeaks fiasco has pointed to many weaknesses in the overall infrastructure of the protocols and technologies that bound together, make the internet you’re reading this on. The current incantation of WikiLeaks is just the alpha test of a technology and framework that will make not just the viewing and access to leaked information something the government will be unable to police effectively, but also the leaking of that information even more secure.

All talk that this will set back whistleblowing several decades is pabulum. If anything this current situation has proven quite effectively that there is a place to send leaked and confidential information to that will review it and will make sure it gets media attention. You no longer have to rely on the efficacy of governmental processes or whistleblower protections, you can anonymously and confidently send confidential information to WikiLeaks without fear of it being traced back to you. WikiLeaks protects its sources with a fervour and passion that seems to be leaving the journalistic field.

If anything the attention placed by the world’s media on this process is identifying that the process needs to be made even easier so more information of vital importance can be brought to light.

Whilst still gestating and developing, what we have seen created with WikiLeaks is a secure framework for the submission of confidential or secret information that indicates malfeasance on the part of either governments or private companies. Obviously in response to this increased threat, companies and governments will be performing security audits and making the transfer of information far more difficult, but this also means they will be spending more time making information secret, and thus will have to choose more carefully what information they decide should remain secret.

The power of WikiLeaks though does not come from its secrecy or the new technologies that are being baked into the web to make it easier and more robust to share information securely, no, the core power of WikiLeaks is you. Whether you’re a government employee who has found documents that identify corrupt acts by those in power, or a private sector employee who discovers emails indicating fraud has been performed, if you are a person of moral decency and a sense of right and wrong the impetus is upon you to share this information. WikiLeaks can only do its job if brave men and women risk fines and imprisonment to make information that needs to be free, free. It’s getting safer and easier to transfer this information to people who will spill the disinfectant of sunlight across corporate and government malfeasance.

It’s up to you to leak it. It’s up to the geeks that build the technologies that power the internet to take on this challenge and shape our fledgling darling into something so robust and so wholly independent from government influence that it provides the perfect platform to speak truth to power.