Friday, October 29, 2010

Information Sovereignty and the Case of WikiLeaks

This week’s topic was “Networks and Politics: Influence of Power.” In Sangeet Kumar’s article, he argues that “new media entities such as Google represent a new modality of power, increasingly making inroads into the Westphalian nation-state system” (154). Google’s ‘centerless,’ ‘distributed network’ is difficult for states to challenge or regulate, as illustrated by Google Earth. Several states have tried to fight the company, believing that the availability of satellite images pose threats to security and territorial integrity. Google’s conflict with the Indian government is perhaps the most pronounced example, as the case continued for over a year. (The state could only make requests and threats, though it had no power to enforce them. This problem was only resolved when Google finally ceded in order to ease a business deal.)

Kumar claims that “as they effortlessly transgress boundaries and bypass traditional controls of information flow, digital media institutions such as Google constrain the nation state in unprecedented ways” (155). The company uses its network power to claim that it is advocating for the global free flow of information, which in the public interest.

Julian Assange, spokesperson and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, has similarly argued for the freedom of information. The organization has released thousands of classified U.S. military documents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Google Earth, WikiLeaks presents a problem of information sovereignty and national security.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada has announced a bill to change the wording of the Espionage Act (1917) that would make it illegal to identify informants working with the U.S. military. (Names of informants were included in the Afghanistan documents, and though they have been removed from the Iraq documents, it is still possible to contextually identify them.) The bill is intended to target Assange, though critics say he would be difficult to prosecute, as he is not an American citizen and has no plans to visit the U.S.

It seems that the United States has very little legal power to challenge Julian Assange. However, PFC Manning, the soldier accused of leaking the documents, has been charged with crimes including violations of the Espionage Act.

Recently, some have suggested that the U.S. government launch cyberattacks against WikiLeaks, though the website has done much to protect itself, spreading out its servers, encrypting data, and creating mirror sites. In the past couple days, the organization has ceased hosting documents on servers in San Jose. 

Kumar, Sangeet. “Google Earth and the nation state: Sovereignty in the age of new media,” Global Media and Communication 2010 6:154.

1 comment:

  1. I think your post does an excellent job of highlighting the challenge of governments to maintain governance over transnational networks.

    Like Kumar discusses in his article on India’s failed attempts to prevent Google from publishing locations of military assets in Google Earth, this rise of “networked convergence” undermines the sovereignty of the nation-state and forces them to adapt their “metaphors of containment.”

    In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen write about the future of this tug-of-war between governments and new connection technologies. They said: “Faced with these opportunities, democratic governments have an obligation to join together while also respecting the power of the private and nonprofit sectors to bring about change. They must listen to those on the frontlines and recognize that their citizens’ use of technology can be an effective vehicle to promote the values of freedom, equality, and human rights globally. In a new age of shared power, no one can make progress alone.”

    Despite Google’s claim to be promoting the free flow of information for the public interest, their immense financial advantage in promoting this access is evident. Google opened operations in China (a clearly booming computer market), despite their uncomfortableness with the Chinese government censoring information and spying on human rights activists.

    As with Wikileaks, it’s an interesting arena of politics, information, sovereignty and the like. As with governments, I think it’s difficult to be certain of an individual (Assange) or a corporation’s (Google) motivation. It’s a great time to be studying these issues and watch how they unfold.