Sunday, December 5, 2010
Wikileaks as Global Rhizome
By Monday December 6, Wikileaks seems to have substantially recovered from the wave of cyberattacks it sustained the previous week, which had shut down the website on several ocassions. Now there are 507 (and counting) mirror websites of Wikileaks based in domains all over the globe, in New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Portugal, Germany... More importantly, it seems that most of these mirror websites are being hosted by people originally unconnected to Wikileaks, and who are simply joining forces in a grassroots, expansive global movement aimed at countering state and corporate censorship.
Wikileaks is rapidly turning into a global rhizome, which the US government and its corporate allies may shut down in one node (Amazon) but that quickly emerges in hundreds of new nodes elsewhere on the planet, through a strategy of horizontal expansion and interconnectivity that in being fundamentally decentered, mobile, and elusive defies censorship and cyber-attacks. "A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines,” wrote Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari; and these lines “always tie back to one another."
In my previous blog entry, I highlighted the importance of the spatial location of certain internet domains used by Wikileaks in order to avoid censorship, which have largely concentrated in northern European countries with strong legal protection for free speech.
Yet in his dialogue with readers of The Guardian last Friday, Julian Assange revealed another dimension of the global spatial strategy of Wikileaks, which is to base their domains in countries that they knew would shut them down. In his words, "Since 2007 we have been deliberately placing some of our servers in jurisdictions that we suspected suffered a free speech deficit in order to separate rhetoric from reality. Amazon was one of these cases." Some have seen the brief reliance on Amazon as an expresion of the naive amateurism of Wikileaks activists. But Amazon seems to have been the target of a clever (and eminently spatially-oriented) publicity stunt by Wikileaks aimed at exposing the hypocricy of the US government and US media when it comes to defending "freedom of expression" within the territory of the United States. The message is clear: in that part of the world, the right to freedom of expression is much weaker than most Americans think.
This territorial demarcation was also clear in the move by two major US-based companies, PayPal (owned by e-Bay) and the service-provider Everydns, to sever their connections to Wikileaks last week. This move has spatially shifted the terrain of this cyber-confrontation across the Atlantic and back to Europe, where the private companies that are redirecting Wikileaks online contents are now under intense pressure from the governments of the national spaces in which they are based.
The clearest case is that of France, whose government is working hard to terminate the relationship between Wikileaks and the French companies Octopus and OVH, whose domains partly host the US State Department documents revealed by Wikileaks after the Amazon domain was shut down. But similar, nationally-grounded processes have involved Switch, a non-profit registrar set up by the Swiss government that is also partly hosting Wikileaks and has rejected pressure to take it off the web (previous media reports had erroneously claimed that the Swiss server had stopped its links with Wikileaks).
The very rapid expansion of mirror Wikileaks sites in the last few hours is creating a global rhizome that is harder to crush and control and that reveals a key dimension of the global geographies of cyberactivism. The practice of flooding the web with hundreds of functioning Wikileaks websites is a strategy of spatial opacity, of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time, so that it is harder for government-paid hackers to identify locations vulnerable to cyberattack.
And this spatial opacity brings to mind older patterns of resistance to state power, when fighting oppresive regimes entailed the formation of small collectives of bodies (that could not even dream of computers or internet service-providers) moving around in thick forests. My colleague Hernán Cazzaniga made an illuminating comment on facebook about my previous blog entry on Wikipedia: that Julian Assanges on the run from Interpol is somehow comparable to Che Guevara hiding from the Bolivian Army in the forests of Bolivia, the difference being that Assange is hiding "in a jungle discoursively overinformed that nonetheless requires physical supports in order to sustain that other space."
I like the metaphor of cyberspace as a terrain of struggle that resembles the opaque jungles that in the 20th century provided cover to ragtag guerillas fighting a more powerful yet less flexible enemy. The difference, however, is that state-corporate power controls much of the flows that make up the jungles of cyberspace, in a process in which cyberactivism also entails a struggle to define the shape, content, configuration, and openness of this virtual terrain. A virtual terrain that would vanish into thin air without the physical support created by millions of computers and living bodies based in actual places all over the world.
Big Brother is working very hard, both in China and the US, to make the internet more transparent (less jungle-like) to its Big Eye. But countless people all over the world are working even harder to create a different form of transparency: one that turns dirty state secrets, the ones Big Brother does not want us to know about, into public platforms for democratic debate and accountability.