It’s already changed the way we live our lives, but the WikiLeaks saga shows it will also change the way governments work
The assault on the royal car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall last week showed that the old politics is alive and kicking – and daubing paint and smashing windows – as ever. But, threatening though it was, there was something faintly anachronistic about the preposterous cries of “off with their heads”. The assault on corporate websites – in retaliation for the global establishment’s attempts to shut down WikiLeaks – was, by contrast, singularly modern.
In the old days, leaks came in plain brown envelopes containing a few hastily photocopied pages. But a paradigm shifted last month when the WikiLeaks website began publishing 251,287 secret US military and State Department cables. The largest set of confidential documents ever leaked into the public domain, it did more than embarrass on a bigger scale: it threatened the basis of international diplomacy, which relies on the possibility of frank private exchanges of views, and threatened to compromise the security of nations.
At the heart of this changed game is the internet. For a decade or more, the worldwide web has been creating new ways of doing politics. It began in 1999 with the posting on the internet of a 151-page draft of the Multinational Agreement on Investment. That scuppered what was to have been the most far-reaching international agreement of the 20th century – to remove all regulations on the global movement of money – which Western civil servants were negotiating behind the backs of most politicians. The web passed another milestone in 2006 when, in the US, Congressional candidates with support from the “netroots” – the grass roots on the internet – were found to do better than candidates who lacked such support. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first US president to use the internet to raise large amounts of cash and muster an army of volunteers.
The internet has not only revolutionised politics. It has also changed the way we get our news. Experts blog, offering a critical counterpoint to the traditional media. Ordinary citizens find a platform for views excluded from the mainstream political agenda. Politics has become more participatory. And recent days have shown that protesters do not need to stand on a picket line any more; they can use technology to fight back.
But fight what? Defenders of WikiLeaks say that US government attempts to remove its domain name system and close down its income sources it are assaults on freedom of speech. A group of “hacktivists” worldwide have offered their services in cyber-assaults on companies that have done Washington’s bidding.