The Internet's original promise – of being a scale-neutral free medium for the exchange of ideas – has suffered a serious blow in the wake of the attacks on WikiLeaks.

The not-so-thinly-veiled attacks on WikiLeaks and its charismatic founder, Julian Assange, by prominent political personalities has been covertly and overtly supported by entities such as Amazon, the two major credit card companies, MasterCard and Visa, the internet payment solutions provider Paypal and several other entities with a strong commercial interests who have a direct stake in the way the Internet works for all of us – or at least assumed it works.

Cloud under a cloud

More significantly, the recent attacks on WikiLeaks have raised serious questions about important new innovations such as “cloud computing” that have received euphoric endorsements from a large section of commercial interests that have a stake in the Internet economy. Amazon's recent move, following obvious pressure from the top echelons of the U.S. administration, to unilaterally pull down WikiLeaks from its website raises serious issues about the very integrity of the cloud model. People may well ask: “If this could happen to Amazon, what about our mail that has been on Google, Yahoo and Hotmail servers for years?” This is not a simple matter concerning millions of individuals using the Internet, given the fact that cloud protagonists have been touting it as the way to go for small and medium enterprises.

The cloud model, based on the economically compelling logic of an outsourced service, rests on the principal that consumers – individuals and companies – would be better off by using software and hardware that is located “outside their space.” Amazon's dropping of the WikiLeaks hot potato now raises the question whether the economic gain is worth the loss of democratic right to free speech on the Internet.

This brings into focus data on “virtualised” servers. The idea of the Web, once based on a peer-to-peer model comprising simple routers and switches, is now being increasingly replaced by cloud-based systems. The WikiLeaks issue has raised serious issues pertaining to jurisdictional legality of the data that is on the cloud. Attached to these are the fundamental issues of freedom of information on the Net.

Virtualisation also means that data is at “remote' locations whose jurisdiction is yet unclear. The Amazon episode shows the fragility of freedom on the Web, which has been highlighted by elements such as the Free Software movement.

Internet democracy and WikiLeaks

In the context of an Internet democracy, the WikiLeaks story is an important one. The U.S. Government, which has in the past sermonised on the “freedom to connect” and linked it to basic human rights – in the context of the China versus Google battle – has drawn flak for its response to WikiLeaks. Internet activists have alleged that the U.S. Government orchestrated the distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks – when hackers flood a site with communication requests so as to render it unresponsive or too slow – on the WikiLeaks site, within days of its announcement that it will host the leaked diplomatic cables.

Although the U.S. Government has denied any involvement in these attacks, activists argue that WikiLeaks is also entitled to the same yardstick when it is accused of organising the attacks on global credit card companies. And when WikiLeaks migrated to Amazon's cloud for extra computing power, the government also reportedly pressurised the Internet firm to throw WikiLeaks off its cloud, then proceeding to choke it of its sources of funding. Both Paypal and Amazon have admitted that their decision was influenced by the U.S. Government's stance.

The freedom of the Internet is important, and critical to WikiLeaks. The structure of the Internet, where information travels over nodes, makes it possible for an organisation to spread itself thin across the globe, and yet be able to host or make information available that might otherwise have been stifled by governments.

How Wiki works

So, how does WikiLeaks work? This Wiki – a term for server software that allows participative content creation through interlinked pages – has grown at a tremendous pace. Contributors can click on its ‘submit' button or simply mail the data, all anonymously, of course. Hosted on the Swedish Internet Service Provider PeRiQuito – known for hosting the torrent-indexing site Pirate Bay – with servers in undisclosed locations, WikiLeaks uses advance encryption to protect the source of the data. But how?

In a “surprise appearance” at a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference at Oxford in 2009, Assange explained that WikiLeaks uses “state-of-the-art encryption to bounce stuff around the Internet to hide trails... pass it through legal jurisdictions like Sweden and Belgium to enact those legal protections.” This sophisticated technology used by WikiLeaks is Tor – acronym for ‘The Onion Router' – an open source and free net networking system that enables anonymity over the web. Encrypted data is passed through multiple nodes on the web — each node, being privy to information only about the previous node, simply relays the data — making it virtually impossible to track the source.

Here, collaboration is the name of the game. A Tor network uses servers from around the world that bounce the data from one node to the other. So, when the site was down within hours of its announcement that “classified cables” were due for release, volunteers mirrored the sites in locations around the world. As of December 12, there are 1,885 such mirrors spread across the World Wide Web, so data once published can never be lost. This collaborative nature makes it extremely difficult to “take down” WikiLeaks.

Cyber satyagraha

What followed the attempts to stifle WikiLeaks was less cyber warfare and more of a cyber civil disobedience movement by hacktivists, as the U.K.-based news publication Guardian puts it. Even those behind ‘Operation Payback' have repeatedly announced that their aim was to “create awareness” on WikiLeaks' issues. However, many have condemned the attacks as plain vandalism.

The “cyber war” has been less of an organised mass movement than we have been led to believe. Hacktivists from around the world connected briefly in chat rooms, if at all, with some more hardcore hackers controlling the attacks. Cyber footsoldiers simply downloaded the software, thereby pledging their computers to the mass attack that took down sites such as PayPal, Amazon and MasterCard, all companies that had pulled support and services from WikiLeaks.

Traditionally, DDOS attacks use hijacked or compromised machines to form the ‘botnet' that takes down ‘target sites'. In this case, all contributors are volunteers. Last week, The Wired reported that more sophisticated technology was in the offing, the kind that did not require any installations; it only required volunteers to keep a certain webpage open.

Testing times for the law

Amazon's assertion that WikiLeaks “doesn't own or otherwise control” all the rights to the classified cables has also been challenged. Crooked Timber (the blog) has quoted Markus Kuhn, a computer security researcher at the Cambridge Computer Lab, who has pointed out that any work “prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. Government as part of that person's official duties” is not entitled to domestic copyright protection under U.S. law. “So, in the U.S. at least, the leaked cables are not protected by copyright and it doesn't matter whether WikiLeaks owns the rights or not,” says this blog posted on December 14. This appears to be the reason why the U.S. Government is still “exploring” the scope and extent of the “illegalities” committed by WikiLeaks.

So, what the WikiLeaks saga basically illustrates is that entities – commercial as well as otherwise – are getting into unchartered legal territories with the clear resolve to take sides even as the legality of their conduct is still very much in question. In that sense WikiLeaks has played a stellar role in testing the boundaries of the Net as we have assumed it to be.