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1 September 2014 09:25 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

WikiLeaks is definitely the Napster for our age

  • Sipho Hlongwane
Will this new anti-authoritarian streak the world has developed last? Will WikiLeaks change the world? It will, but not quite the way we think.

A few weeks ago, when it became obvious that change had been brought to the world by WikiLeaks, and nobody quite knew how the world was changing, or indeed why, popular internet “guru” Clay Shirky wrote, “Like a lot of people, I am conflicted about WikiLeaks.”

TechPresident co-founder Andrew Rasiej saw it more clearly. He said, "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 said to the AFP. “Everybody, basically, has a printing press in their hands that is connected to every other printing press.”

The WikiLeaks–Napster analogy offers so much more than the AFP article would have us believe. Rasiej is speaking about Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, who changed the world between 1999 and 2001 with the online music peer-to-peer file-sharing program, Napster. The service meant it became very easy to swap MP3 files online, leading to a bypass of established markets and massive copyright violations. The music production and distribution industry was furious, and brought down its full wrath on Fanning and Parker, eventually leading to Napster shutting down (in that form) in July 2001. But the genie was out of the bottle. Piracy became rife on the Internet, and the newer file-sharing services that sprung up after Napster’s demise, like The Pirate Bay, were much tougher to shut down. Most importantly, Napster planted the idea in people’s mind, never again to be erased, that stuff on the Internet really ought to be free. 

WikiLeaks will do something similar for the world. Much like Napster, it has taken on an established business, namely that of government-controlled information, shaken it to its very core and, in the process, raised its ire. Even though WikiLeaks as we know it will not survive the fallout (more on this later), the free-information genie is out the bottle and the world’s expectations will never be quite the same again.

What WikiLeaks will never do is usher in an “all information wants to be free” age. Like we accept that artists ought to make money off their craft, we likewise accept that some information deserves privacy. Besides, governments will simply never dedicate information that they want to keep private to an online network. Much as Napster failed to make all music on the Internet free, WikiLeaks will not make all information publicly available.

WikiLeaks has been around for quite some time now, but it only rose to prominence after it leaked a classified video of a US Army Apache helicopter gunning down two Reuters employees in Iraq. The fact that of all the material WikiLeaks has received over the last year, it’s chosen to publish the classified US information first, points perhaps to a deeper reason for the whistleblowing site’s existence. It is no secret that a generous portion of the world hates the USA. After eight years under stifling and polarising foreign policies during the Bush years, coupled with that administration’s trigger-happy jingoism, how couldn’t the world feel some animosity towards America? Worst of all, when Dubya says “you’re either with  us, or against us”, one couldn’t help but remember that he had a fleet of nuclear submarines and the capability to flatten entire subcontinents in a couple of hours. There wasn’t much wriggle-room or place for negotiation there.

Perhaps WikiLeaks is a way of getting back at the US for the way it’s treated the rest of the world since 9/11. The fullest and most immediate extent of change that the self-proclaimed whistleblowing organisation will bring is the sense of individual empowerment against overbearing government control and almost unchecked power. Where, previously the only way most individuals had of expressing their outrage against the US was a protest march, anyone with a laptop and reasonable hacker skills can now strike against Uncle Sam. If you think of it, WikiLeaks isn’t much more than a bunch of computers (with “V for Vendetta” stickers on the monitor covers, no doubt) in a basement somewhere. This idea of individual empowerment against governments is contagious, as the sudden crop of WikiLeaks copies that have sprung up all around the world has shown. It will not go away.

As the Internet becomes a better tool against government control, we may see governments try to counter by trying to police the Internet to a greater extent. The idea of an international online crimes bureau may gain greater acceptance. As they always have in past, governments will be on the wrong side of history. Their efforts will fail, undoubtedly.

We’re still very much in the skirmish mode of this great battle; when the battle is over, the dust finally settles and the authorities realise the boundaries will have shifted irreversibly, expect to see a new crop of politicians campaigning around the idea that governments should make more information free.

Children who have grown up with Napster, Mxit, Facebook and Twitter, to whom the idea of sharing even the most intimate details of their lives with strangers online is not weird at all, will someday be adults who demand the same level of openness from their governments. Politicians who realise this will prosper. Those who don’t may very well be viewed by future generations as we view the defenders of Jim Crow legislation in the US and apartheid-era authorities in South Africa today.

WikiLeaks, the creator of this great foment will not survive any of this. Like Napster, it will have to change or die. The idea that it has sown across the world will never die, but the organisation itself is too radical in its interpretation of what whistleblowing and journalism are. It is too far ahead of the community and, thus, does not enjoy the support of the greater majority. Whistleblowers who are more willing to move along at the right pace with the mainstream are the ones who will still be around many years from now. WikiLeaks has also become too dependent upon Julian Assange, and his capricious nature tends to discolour the entire organisation. For its own good it must draw a clearer distinction between Assange and WikiLeaks, so that any attacks against the former do not harm the latter. Otherwise I don’t see how it will survive the determined attacks against them.

But the genie that it has released into the world will never be put back into the bottle again. DM

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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