Counting the toll of Wikileaks

Global row over Wikileaks affair is disastrous for cloud computing, says Fujitsu's Dr Joseph Reger
Counting the toll of Wikileaks
People gather to protest the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange
By Dr Joseph Reger
Tue 14 Dec 2010 12:45 PM

News magazines, TV news shows and talk shows – at the moment they are all talking about just one thing: the Wikileaks affair and how founder Julian Assange has become public enemy number one virtually overnight.

This is amazing, especially as currently the world is otherwise not exactly undergoing a quiet news period. And even more astonishing are the reactions of both politicians and the general public: the USA is desperately searching for a reason to bring Assange to justice, Amazon has banned Wikileaks from its servers. Visa and Mastercard have blocked the platform’s financial channels - and in the public debate, Assange is already judged as a criminal.

Is Assange really a criminal? He may well be. However, at the time of the Watergate affair, no one would have even considered accusing the two investigative journalists of being criminals – even though their research was also based on information leaked by the authorities and in the end led to a US President's head rolling. Instead, the song of investigative journalism was sung.

Today, the assessment criteria seem to have changed. Assange is no journalist. He publishes documents without questioning, evaluating or putting them into context. One may criticise that.

The same goes for the fact that he - in the light of the explosive contents of the documents he published – unquestionably acted irresponsibly. Still the question remains: is Assange really a criminal? He has only published the truth that others have created.

I think somebody else is to blame. The knee-jerk threatening gestures from the US and, last but not least, the political pressure on Amazon are rather a distraction for an unease which is based on something entirely different: a  sense of helplessness and a sense of unease that with the internet, man has created technology that we cannot control.

In the information age, wars are being waged with information, not with tanks. This Janus-headed character is a problem that cannot be solved: All ground-breaking technology that mankind has produced can be used for good or evil, and humankind has always taken both options. The really fatal aspect usually is that technology has evolved faster than the ethical understanding of how to handle it, or of the sense of responsibility in society, and - of course - legislation. And so we are only left to make sure that the process is reversed this time: that ethics and law are faster than the dark side.

Amazon’s reaction in particular presents a big risk for the development of the IT market. The provider simply cut off cloud services for Wikileaks - that is, its server capacity, which made Wikileaks available on the internet. Amazon’s reason: Wikileaks violated its terms and conditions.

This is bad news for the new IT paradigm of cloud computing: If a provider can terminate its service that easily, based only on allegations of a contractual breach, then it is doing exactly what skeptics expect: putting the security and availability of cloud services into question.

Amazon may be able to prove its accusation - and with a bit of legal subtlety this is certainly possible - but it still leaves a bad taste. Where will this lead? Should providers of cloud services constantly review whether any of their customers are pursuing an unpopular or immoral activity – and continually make value judgments as to whether they are willing to continue the service?

One need not be a supporter of Wikileaks to find this alarming. Many potential customers for cloud computing services will, I fear, have been paying attention - and will now be forced to reconsider whether they can afford to make their IT that dependent on a third party. Cloud computing’s reputation has been damaged. For IT, this is the real tragedy.

Dr Joseph Reger, is the chief technology officer at Fujitsu Technology Solutions. The opinions expressed are his own.

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