We've read so much in the last few weeks about Julian Assange, it's easy to forget the WikiLeaks story isn't ultimately about Julian Assange. It isn't even really about WikiLeaks, any more than Watergate was a story about a hotel. This is a story about a new era—one where, in the words of the security specialist Bruce Schneier, "the government is learning what the music and movie industries were forced to learn years ago: it's easy to copy and distribute digital files." If WikiLeaks shut its doors tomorrow, disgruntled soldiers or secretaries or bankers or bureaucrats or cops or managers or their nosy spouses could still send secret documents to Cryptome instead. Or perhaps to OpenLeaks, a forthcoming site in the same genre. Or to any of the other operations of this sort that may appear in the coming years. Or they could just release the information directly to the world, emailing items anonymously to the media or releasing big chunks of data as a torrent.
If you have access to secrets you'd like to share, you no longer need to persuade Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh to be your intermediary. And the larger the institution with secrets to keep, the more opportunities for leaking there will be.
How will those big institutions react to this leaky new era? One theory says they'll keep fewer secrets and behave with greater care. Forced into the sunshine, they'll revise their behavior; if they're more likely to be caught misbehaving, then they'll be less likely to misbehave.
A rival theory says they'll just try harder not to be caught. Closed hierarchies will close themselves further in a desperate attempt to stop the flow of information. Assange himself suggested this would happen in an essay he wrote in 2006, which the blogger Aaron Bady exhumed and explored in a widely cited post last month. In Bady's words, "the more opaque [an organization] becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to 'think' as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy." Under the sunshine of WikiLeaks, an authoritarian organization "will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire."
The two theories aren't really mutually exclusive. Different institutions will react in different ways to the new environment, and as the consequences of each approach become clear the world will haphazardly evolve. So far, the globe's most powerful institution—the United States government—has been following Assange's script. With its former secrets sliding freely through the Internet, Washington has ordered its employees to cover their eyes. The Department of Defense put out word that its personnel and contractors should avoid the WikiLeaks site: "There has been rumor that the information is no longer classified since it resides in the public domain. This is NOT true." In the military, visiting an outlet that merely discussed the WikiLeaks cables might prompt your computer to warn you that "YOU HAVE SELECTED A SITE THAT MAY POTENTIALLY CONTAIN CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS." The message would then go on to explain that "once a user identifies the information as classified or potentially classified, the individual should immediately cease viewing the item and close their web browser." If you work for the Air Force, don't try using your work computer to read The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, or 21 other publications that have published a portion of the WikiLeaks cables; you'll just get a big fat "ACCESS DENIED."
All those papers, of course, are easily available to civilians. This is Assange's scenario come to life, in a manner so absurd it feels like a Robert Anton Wilson satire.
Meanwhile, Washington's loudest voices have refused to recognize the situation they're in, preferring to plunge into paranoia and repression. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and John Ensign (R-Nev.) have proposed a law restricting the publication of information "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government." Lieberman's office has also pressured companies doing business with WikiLeaks to cut off their ties with the site. Assange's attorney claims that the U.S. has convened a grand jury to explore criminal charges against his client. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), soon to be chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, thinks WikiLeaks should be designated a terrorist organization. "The benefit of that," he elaborated on MSNBC, "is we would be able to seize their assets and we'd be able to stop anyone from helping them in any way, whether it's making contributions, giving free legal advice, or whatever."
If any of those ideas prevails, the consequences will be grim for the First Amendment. It may be a crime to leak diplomatic cables, but it is not and should not be illegal for a third party to publish those cables once they come into its hands. It is impossible to enact rules that would restrict WikiLeaks' right to publish without also restricting the freedom of the papers that have printed the same documents—not unless you adopt an even more odious scheme in which the government gets to decide who is or isn't a licensed journalist. In the short term, then, the paramount issue is the need to fight every attempt to add new limits to our freedom of speech.
In the longer term, the paramount issue is that those limits won't even work. I remember when the record companies were filled with men and women who thought the key to stopping online filesharing was to shut down a company called Napster. I remember when a teenaged programmer named Shawn Fanning was attracting the sort of press that Julian Assange is getting today. In 2010, the average 14-year-old probably doesn't know who Fanning is. He might not even recognize the name Napster. But he knows how to download music for free.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.