The WikiLeaks sites have vanished — though more than 1,400 mirror sites still carry the disclosures. Amazon, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and the organization’s Swiss bank have shut it down, either on their own initiative or after a threat from the U.S. government or its poodles in London and Geneva. Julian Assange is in a British prison, facing a hearing on trumped-up Swedish allegations zealously posted by Interpol. The U.S. government is warning potential employees not to read the Wiki materials anywhere on the Web, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is cooking up a stew of new gag stipulations and fierce statutory penalties against any site carrying material the government deems compromising to state security. Commercial outfits like Amazon are falling over themselves to connive at the shutdowns, actual or threatened.
One of the biggest lessons for us all comes in the form of a wake-up call on the enormous vulnerability of our prime means of communication to swift government-instigated, summary shutdown.
Forty-three years ago, Ramparts magazine published its disclosures of the CIA’s capture of the National Student Association as a front organization. The magazine became the target of furious denunciation by the Liebermans and McConnells of the day. Even before publication, the CIA’s Desmond FitzGerald authorized a dirty-tricks operation against Ramparts. But at no time did the government muster the nerve to flout the First Amendment and try to shut the magazine down on grounds that it was compromising “national security” and guilty of espionage. A courtroom challenge by Ramparts’ lawyers would have been inevitable.
While visiting Britain in the early 1970s, former CIA case officer Philip Agee had a brief meeting with Tony Godwin, editor-in-chief of Penguin Books, a friend of mine. Godwin agreed to publish Agee’s expose, including the names of active CIA officers and details of their operations. Agee managed to write the book in Paris, though I warned him that the CIA certainly knew of his plans and would probably try to kill him. They bugged his typewriter and later floated disobliging rumors about his sex life and drinking habits, but no one tried to shove him into the Seine or even put him in a French prison.
Today? At the least, all of Ramparts’ electronic business operations would be closed down. Pressured by the U.S. government, Amazon would deny Penguin all access or ability to sell books. Just look at what has happened to WikiLeaks.
Britain has had its left leaker heroes. In 1963, “Spies for Peace” — a group of direct-action British anarchists and kindred radicals associated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Bertrand Russell’s Committee of 100 — broke into a secret government bunker, Regional Seat of Government Number 6 (RSG-6) at Warren Row, near Reading, where they photographed and copied documents showing secret government preparations for rule after a nuclear war. They distributed a pamphlet, along with copies of relevant documents, to the press, stigmatizing the “small group of people who have accepted thermonuclear war as a probability, and are consciously and carefully planning for it. … They are quietly waiting for the day the bomb drops, for that will be the day they take over.”
There was a big uproar, and then the Conservative government of the day issued a D-notice forbidding any further coverage in the press. The cops and intelligence services hunted long and hard for the Spies for Peace, and caught nary a one.
These days, would the press have been so initially swift to reprint the pamphlet? Would any website reprinting its contents have survived for 24 hours?
So far as the Internet is concerned, First Amendment protections here in the U.S. — certainly better than protections in the U.K. — appear to have no purchase or even acknowledged standing. Even before the WikiLeaks hysteria took hold, the situation was very serious. As Davey D recently reported on his Hip Hop Corner website, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Homeland Security — along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Justice Department and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center — seized more than eighty websites, including popular hip-hop sites RapGodFathers.com, dajaz1.com and Onsmash.com. These sites were accused of copyright violations. No hearing. Alive one minute, dead the next.
So here we have a public “commons” — the Internet — subject to arbitrary onslaught by the state and powerful commercial interests, and not even the shadow of constitutional protections. The situation is getting worse. The net itself is going private. As I write, Google and Facebook are locked in a struggle over which company will control the bulk of the world’s Internet traffic. Millions could find that the e-mail addresses they try to communicate with, the sites they want to visit and the ads they may want to run are all under Google’s or Facebook’s supervision and can be closed off without explanation or redress at any time.
Here in the U.S., certainly, we need a big push on First Amendment protections for the Internet: one more battlefield where the left and the libertarians can join forces. But we must do more than buttress the First Amendment. We must also challenge the corporations’ power to determine the structure of the Internet and decide who is permitted to use it.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.