Updated on 30 December 2010

This is the week for all of the “reviews of the year” features on UK TV and radio. They can be a bit tedious. But every now and then one of them captivates me, and in a few minutes reminds one of the highs and lows of the past twelve months. It’s been an eventful one, too. What with oil spills, rescued miners (and some not rescued), natural disasters, volcanoes, coalition governments, China going green, World Cups, and so much more.

But for me, the story that indicates that “things have changed” more than anything else is the reaction to the release of the US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. The leaked documents themselves held little surprises. In fact, I was more surprised that most of what has been leaked could have been made up by a reasonably intelligent blogger. If that’s what US diplomats get paid – and praised – for doing, where do I sign up? I could do nearly as good a job from my home in London, just watching the news and being reasonably informed. But that’s not the point, nor the main story.

The real big news story is the reaction to the Wikileaks. America is trying to rewrite it’s laws so they can attempt to get Julien Assange arrested for some crime. They initially cried ‘treason’, which does indicate a fairly imperial attitude in Washington. And some even called for him to be assassinated. Remarkable really, from the ‘land of the free’. But then the normally calm Scandinavians resurrect a really spurious sexual claim, and the British (normally very slow to respond to European over reaction) over react themselves.

And then a whole lot of free market companies stop supporting Wikileaks. And then the real fun began, as Wikileak supporters began what might be considered by history as the first flurries of what cyber war might look like.

I was very close to one centre of cyber-warfare action at the end of November. I was actually in Tehran on 30 November – the day that someone (probably Mossad) made broad daylight assassination attempts (one successful, and one not) on two Iranian nuclear scientists. I was just a few city blocks away from the successful car assassination. But more importantly, that day President Ahmadinejad admitted that Iran’s nuclear programme had been the victim of a computer virus. (If you like “spy vs spy” stories, then read Newsweek’s account of these events). This year also saw Stuxnet, which appears to be the first state-sponsored computer virus targeting another State directly. Cyber-warfare has begun.

The furore over these conflicts is not over yet (although the blogosphere has calmed down quite quickly). But these stories are going to be taught at universities in the future, and will be written in history books, of that I am sure. Something changed this year, and I’m not sure it changed for the better.

Probably the best article written on the issue was from The Economist. Read it at their site, or an extract below.

The right reaction

America is rightly furious. But it should learn from its mistakes in the past decade and stick to its own rules
The Economist: Dec 9th 2010

BIG crimes deserve tough responses. In any country the theft and publication of 250,000 secret government documents would deserve punishment. If the leak costs lives, let alone the careers and trust that have already perished amid the WikiLeaks disclosures, the case for action is even stronger.

Nor should a government fear to act because its adversaries are popular and fight back. That the digital Jacobins of WikiLeaks have a cult following should not save them from condemnation or prosecution. Removing illicit material from the internet is hard. But governments spend a lot of money, rightly, on chasing child pornography, bomb-making techniques and copyright breaches to the internet’s margins. Similarly, discouraging WikiLeaks and those who give it financial and technical support (see article) is justified for elected politicians in a law-governed state.

But calibrating that response raises questions of principle, practice and priority. Businesses will go their own way. Some, such as PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, which handled donations to WikiLeaks, and Amazon, which provided web-hosting services, have dumped it as a customer in response to American outrage. More may follow. They risk attacks from its fans, just as those that refuse face hostility from their customers in America. Too bad: business is full of hard choices.

For the American government, prosecution, not persecution, offers the best chance of limiting the damage and deterring future thefts. The blustering calls for the assassination of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder now in custody in London awaiting extradition to Sweden on faintly mysterious charges of sexual assault, look both weak and repellent. If Mr Assange has broken American law, it is there that he should stand trial, just like Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the stolen documents. If not, it may be some consolation that the cables so far (see article) reveal a largely flattering picture of America’s diplomats: conscientious, cool-headed, well-informed, perceptive and on occasion eloquent.

Don’t create a digital Afghanistan

If America sticks to those standards now it will display a strength and sanity that contrasts with the shrill absolutism and cyber-vandalism of the WikiLeaks partisans. Calling Mr Assange a terrorist, for example, is deeply counterproductive. His cyber-troops do not fly planes into buildings, throw acid at schoolgirls or murder apostates. Indeed, the few genuine similarities between WikiLeaks and the Taliban—its elusiveness and its wide base of support—argue against ill-judged attacks that merely broaden that support. After a week of clumsy American-inspired attempts to shut WikiLeaks down, it is now hosted on more than 700 servers around the world.

The big danger is that America is provoked into bending or breaking its own rules, straining alliances, eroding credibility and—because it will not be able to muzzle WikiLeaks—ultimately seeming impotent. In recent years America has promoted the internet as a menace to foreign censorship. That sounds tinny now. So did its joy of hosting next year’s World Press Freedom Day this week. Chinese and Russian glee at American discomfort are a sure sign of such missteps.

The best lessons to bear in mind are those learned in such costly fashion during the past decade of the “war on terror”. Deal with the source of the problem, not just its symptoms. Keep the moral high ground. And pick fights you can win.

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