These leaks spell doom for web freedom
By William Rees-Mogg
When the Daily Telegraph first published details of MPs’ expenses, it was almost impossible to disentangle two very different issues.
One concerned MPs’ conduct, and it was clear that an unacceptably large number had indeed abused the allowance system. It was a legitimate public interest to publish evidence of their conduct.
However, there was also the issue of technology which allowed the record of MPs’ claims to be taken as a whole and transferred to the custody of the newspaper. A generation earlier, it would have required a truck to carry away the files.
Now we have had an even larger exposure of confidential information – the publication of 250,000 American diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. This demonstrates that it is no longer possible to rely on the confidentiality of any sources, government or otherwise.
The concept of privacy may be enshrined in human rights legislation, but it cannot be made effective. The hacker will find a way.
It is interesting that the newspapers that have been most closely involved in the transmission of the WikiLeaks files have been high-minded newspapers of the Left, such as The Guardian and the New York Times.
There has been some talk of public interest. My view is that WikiLeaks would not have been able to make good a public interest justification. The damage to the diplomatic process has been disproportionate to the public benefit.
The actual files contained a lot of stale diplomatic gossip, exemplified by mildly embarrassing quotes from the Duke of York, an amiable man who uses his good access to promote British trade. Whatever else he may be, he is not one of the movers and shakers of international affairs.
There were, however, some very sensitive subjects that were dealt with, including nuclear proliferation by Iran and the relations between China and North Korea.
These are subjects that could lead to serious international conflict. There is no argument to suggest that WikiLeaks will help to prevent nuclear proliferation or create a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the West and Iran.
It has been alleged in Iran that the whole thing has been an American plant to embarrass America’s enemies. This seems most unlikely. The leaks damage the reputation and the diplomacy of the United States. They do harm to everyone who relies on confidentiality, but they harm the United States the most.
In the past, the United States has suffered countless leaks but the State Department has been relatively successful in keeping its partners’ secrets to itself, at least in the post-Vietnam period.
There is certainly a popular point of view in America that regards this latest episode as a disaster. The Republican Sarah Palin, who often strikes a populist note, has denounced WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as ‘an anti-American operative with blood on his hands’. She thinks he should be hunted down like Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
Considering that some Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed by US guided missiles, that would be an extreme policy, but Palin has put forward one interesting proposal: she has suggested that ‘cyber tools’ be used to shut down WikiLeaks permanently.
No love lost: Republican Sarah Palin says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has blood on his hands
On Tuesday, staff reported that the website was indeed under cyber attack and that this had prevented them from publishing further documents.
There is no doubt that cyber attack and defence has become one of the main interests of the world’s secret services. It was the boast of the cyber world that the internet was an area of free space. Every blogger was prepared to assert the right to the freedom of their websites. This age is coming to an end.
It is not only a question of official secrets, though these are important. There is already a wide area of cyber crime. There is the desire of the Chinese to protect control of cyber communications.
There is the ultimate fear of cyber war, either by serious military powers or by individual attacks. Any industrial power could be ruined by an attack on its cyber communications. Advanced industrial countries are particularly vulnerable because they are most dependent on cyber systems.
For the first years of the internet, the almost wholly unregulated state of affairs gave the cyber world much of its attraction. Yet it never seemed probable that so powerful a system of communications could be maintained as unregulated.
The European Union is one of the less aggressive regulators, certainly less formidable than China or the United States. However, it is the EU that has decided to investigate search engine Google for allegedly abusing its power.
Isuspect we are entering into the second stage of the relationship between nation states and the regulation of cyber systems. It will involve individuals and huge corporations; it will involve cyber war, or at least defences against cyber wars; it will involve the rights and duties of the media.
It will raise the most serious philosophical questions. It will involve fundamental issues of national power. We do not know how far regulation will go, but the nations will increasingly want to bring the system under their control.
Nature abhors a vacuum. For the past 20 years there has been very little regulation of the cyber world. WikiLeaks has challenged the right of governments to keep their own secrets. Governments will fight back with new regulations.