Friday, December 10, 2010

Quickie: State power and the response to Wikileaks

Via The Monkey Cage (Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage. - H.L. Mencken), a blogpost by Henry Farell (associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University):

The US response to Wikileaks has been an interesting illustration of both the limits and extent of state power in an age of transnational information flows. The problem for the US has been quite straightforward. The Internet makes it more difficult for states (even powerful ones such as the US) to control information flows across their own borders and others. It is much easier than it used to be for actors to hop jurisdictions by e.g. moving a particular Internet based service from one country to another, while still making it possible for people across many countries to access the service. This makes it much harder for the US and other actors to use the traditional tools of statecraft - their jurisdiction does not extend far enough to stop the actors who they would like to stop.
Even if states cannot directly regulate small agile actors outside their jurisdiction, they can indirectly regulate them by pressganging big private actors with cross-jurisdictional reach. A few years ago, the US found itself unable to regulate Internet gambling firms which were based in Antigua and selling their services to US customers. But the US was able to tell its banks that they would suffer legal and political consequences if they allowed transactions between US customers and Antiguan gambling firms, helping to drive the latter out of existence.
And this is exactly what the US is doing in response to Wikileaks. US political pressure caused Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks, EveryDNS to break's domain name, eBay/Paypal to stop facilitating financial transactions, Swiss Post to freeze a Wikileaks bank account (in perhaps the first instance in recorded history of a Swiss bank taking residency requirements seriously), and Mastercard and Visa to cease relations with it. This is unlikely to affect the availability of the information that Wikileaks has already leaked. But it may plausibly affect the medium and long run viability of Wikileaks as an organization. This will be a very interesting battle to watch.

Read the whole thing here.

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