How Wikileaks has unleashed massive online dissent

UK Observer publishes a piece that outlines the new info war with Wikileaks and the world. Call it cyber anarchism, payback to corporations, pro-Wikileaks rattling or just online revolution, there’s a new world out there:

He is one of the newest recruits to Operation Payback. In a London bedroom, the 24-year-old computer hacker is preparing his weaponry for this week’s battles in an evolving cyberwar. He is a self-styled defender of free speech, his weapon a laptop and his enemy the US corporations responsible for attacking the website WikiLeaks.

He had seen the flyers that began springing up on the web in mid-September. In chatrooms, on discussion boards and inboxes from Manchester to New York to Sydney the grinning face of a Guy Fawkes mask had appeared with a call to arms. Across the world a battalion of hackers was being summoned.

“Greetings, fellow anons,” it said beneath the headline Operation Payback. Alongside were a series of software programs dubbed “our weapons of choice” and a stark message: people needed to show their “hatred”.

Like most international conflicts, last week’s internet war began over a relatively modest squabble, escalating in days into a global fight.

Before WikiLeaks, Operation Payback’s initial target was America’s recording industry, chosen for its prosecutions of music file downloaders. From those humble origins, Payback’s anti-censorship, anti-copyright, freedom of speech manifesto would go viral, last week pitting an amorphous army of online hackers against the US government and some of the biggest corporations in the world.

Charles Dodd, a consultant to US government agencies on internet security, said: “[The hackers] attack from the shadows and they have no fear of retaliation. There are no rules of engagement in this kind of emerging warfare.”

The battle now centres on Washington’s fierce attempts to close down WikiLeaks and shut off the supply of confidential US government cables. By Thursday, the hacktivists were routinely attacking those who had targeted WikiLeaks, among them icons of the corporate world, credit card firms and some of the largest online companies. It seemed to be the first sustained clash between the established order and the organic, grassroots culture of the net.

But the clash has cast the spotlight wider, on the net’s power to act as a thorn not only in the side of authoritarian regimes but western democracies, on our right to information and the responsibility of holding secrets. It has also asked profound questions over the role of the net itself. One blogger dubbed it the “first world information war”.

At the heart of the conflict is the WikiLeaks founder, the enigmatic figure of Julian Assange – lionised by some as the Ned Kelly of the digital age for his continued defiance of a superpower, condemned by his US detractors as a threat to national security.