WASHINGTON, Dec 14, 2010 (AFP) - If 1999 was the Year of Napster in the history of the Internet then 2010 will go down as the Year of WikiLeaks.
Napster, the file-sharing renegade, upended the music industry and copyright in ways still being felt a decade later while WikiLeaks, for better or worse, is likely to have a similar impact on government secrecy and transparency.
|WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves from his car as he arrives back at Ellingham Hall in Ellingham, Norfolk after registering at Beccles Police Station as per his bail requirements on December 18. AFP
For now, WikiLeaks has governments, institutions and individuals around the world searching for answers to difficult questions surrounding US policy, free speech, Internet freedom, privacy, secrecy, transparency and the power -- and dangers -- of the Web. WikiLeaks has argued that its release of hundreds of thousands of secret US documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the inner workings of US diplomacy exposes US military abuses on the battlefield and "contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors." Its detractors denounce the release of the documents as a crime carried out by a disgruntled US soldier and abetted by a self-appointed truth-teller in the person of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Clay Shirky, a prominent US writer on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, said he has mixed feelings about WikiLeaks although he staunchly opposes extrajudicial efforts to shut it down."Like a lot of people, I am conflicted about WikiLeaks," Shirky said in a blog post on his website, Shirky.com. "Citizens of a functioning democracy must be able to know what the state is saying and doing in our name," Shirky said. "WikiLeaks plainly improves those abilities.
"On the other hand, human systems can't stand pure transparency," he said. "People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon.
"WikiLeaks plainly damages those abilities." Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of technology and politics blog techPresident.com, said he sees WikiLeaks as a "Napster moment in the evolution of how technology changes the relationship between people and their governments."
The way in which we think about power itself is altered as a result of the Web," Rasiej told AFP. "Everybody, basically, has a printing press in their hands that is connected to every other printing press." I would hope that after everything calms down that the government recognizes that it has to fight for openness and transparency and use classification only in rare occasions," he said.
Rasiej said he was concerned, however, that instead of embracing greater transparency, "governments may try to invoke a cure that may be worse than the disease."
James Lewis, a cyber-security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said just such a clampdown may be the legacy of WikiLeaks.