The most telling release from the US State Department this week was not a leaked cable but its “World Press Freedom Day” announcement.
Just as the rest of the US government was hounding companies not to do business with Wikileaks, the department hailed the ability of new media to empower citizens in “environments sometimes hostile” to freedom of expression.
“At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information,” it went on to say.
You gotta love that.
But as well as the unembarrassed hypocrisy, it reminds us that internet freedom is severely vulnerable to attacks by governments.
A month ago, a flap about China “hijacking” web traffic highlighted the fragility of the BGP routing infrastructure that underpins IP traffic management.
The Wikileaks saga shows how the DNS system is a chokepoint and thus also vulnerable.
The distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Wikileaks forced its registrar, EveryDNS, to cancel its domain registration to protect its other 500,000 customers.
Then the retaliatory attacks this week by hacktivists on Visa and MasterCard further demonstrated the power of DDoS to take websites off the air.
Wikileaks is online thanks to hundreds of mirror sites, but that’s not an option for other websites that come under attack.
The lesson from Wikileaks is that cyberspace is a lawless zone where the weak are prey to the strong.
What we need is a cyberspace police force to protect the rights of legitimate sites, and an effective judicial forum to settle disputes.
Obviously that would require the cooperation of the world’s powers, and for the US to cede its dominance. Obviously it ain’t going to happen soon. Or ever.
But the US assault on Wikileaks has exposed giant cracks in web governance. They will only get bigger.