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Clay Shirky is conflicted about WikiLeaks: he acknowledges that over the long haul human organizations of all kinds require a certain amount of backroom negotiation, but he also thinks that the appearance of a guy like Julian Assange working to subvert a bureaucracy overly addicted to secrecy is occasionally a good thing. “The periodic appearance of such unconstrained actors in the short haul is essential to increased democratization, not just of politics but of thought.”

But he’s not conflicted about how the United States ought to respond. If we pass a law criminalizing what WikiLeaks does, that’s one thing — even if he doesn’t like the law. But ignoring the law is quite another:

When a government can’t get what it wants by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is to accept that it can’t get what it wants. The United States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating.

….I think the current laws, which criminalize the leaking of secrets but not the publishing of leaks, strike the right balance. However, as a citizen of a democracy, I’m willing to be voted down, and I’m willing to see other democratically proposed restrictions on Wikileaks put in place….The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

I’d add one other thing: if you’re going to declare war, you should only do it if the war is winnable. This one sure doesn’t seem to be, and our ragtag offensive against WikiLeaks is doing little except making us look helpless against a pipsqueak. It’s a lot like the counterinsurgencies we keep failing at in meatspace, except squared or cubed. After all, even a “war against terror” might be unwinnable but still manage to minimize terrorist attacks. But as near as I can tell, we could literally kill every person associated with WikiLeaks, impound every cent of their money, and take down all their servers, and it would have virtually no impact. All the existing documents would still be available, and other groups would pop up almost instantly to take WikiLeaks’ place. I guess I might be underestimating our capabilities in this area, but I doubt it. I just don’t see how you can win a war like this in the long run. I don’t even see how you can degrade this kind of activity significantly short of running a Stalinesque security state.

So which is worse: losing a battle, or fighting a long, grinding war and then losing anyway? The latter, right?

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