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WikiLeaks Lessons: The Party of We — Already in Control
January 13, 2011
In November 2010, I wrote an op-ed for CorpCounsel.com hypothesizing that Facebook, Google and RIM were more like virtual countries than they were global corporations, capable of exercising powers common to sovereign nations and not private industry.
Facebook, with a citizen population of over 500 million, is now the third largest nation in the world behind China and India. Google's knowledge base, accessible at lightning speed, is larger than anything maintained by any government in history. RIM's Blackberry continues to be the communication choice for international commerce.
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If that weren't enough, the personal data and tracking information in the possession and control of these three Internet nations makes the databases of any other nations on Earth look like paperback dictionaries.
The new nations of Facebook, Google and RIM have the power to control who has access, what they can distribute, and what they see. Their populations are without borders, independent, and virtual, something never before experienced.
So far, the global discourse has been balanced and fair. But the line differentiating between balanced and fair and arbitrary and dangerous is a very fine one. Is the tipping point between them on the precipice? Is a global revolution coming? Or has it already begun?
As I wrote in my November op-ed, to understand this critical tipping point in context, we need to take a lesson from history.
In 1773, a small group of revolutionaries, weary of an oppressive, distant government, held a little party in Boston by tossing crates of tea off boats in the harbor.
In 2010, another small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries weary of what they perceived to be an oppressive, distant government held their own parties around the nation and planted an idea that influenced the nation's citizens on both sides of the political spectrum as much as the Boston Tea Party did centuries earlier in Boston.
Whether it was the Tea Party of 1773 or the Tea Party of today, the same basic principle applies to both — people united in a cause, even an unpopular one, can change the course of history. They just need a voice.
Historical changes can be breathtaking in enormity, even when they seem small in scale. In the past few weeks, we witnessed actions by a group of dissidents that seemed small, when in truth its impact was enormous. It was a tipping point that we cannot afford to let go unnoticed. Yet it was inevitable and, frankly, predictable, as works of fiction so often show us. Click here if you doubt me.
Enter Julian Assange and his Wikileaks crusade. While he's been heralded by some and vilified by others, no one can deny the impact of his small band of comrades. But it is not the politics of what Assange set loose or the danger it may or may not have caused that is the critical point.
What's most important is the tipping point, spawned not by Assange but by a new body politic — a new party of individuals bonded by commonality of interest not defined by national or geographic boundaries. The Party of We.
In response to the attacks on Wikileaks, this virtual We Party, comprised of citizens of the world, unleashed an unprecedented — and united — attack on parts of the infrastructure that transact payments and sustain eCommerce and for a brief moment shut critical parts of it down.
This was unprecedented not because it hasn't been tried before (even with some success), but because its success, however brief the moment may have been, was only reversed by those who started it and who had a change of heart. Furthermore, it was novel in its motivation not to hack a system or engage in fraud or greed, but rather in support of a cause — a belief in the idea and purity of unencumbered speech.
A small group of Assange's disciples, dedicated to transparency and open source regardless of its implication, struck with today's most potent version of a WMD — the concerted flooding of the broadband, the circulatory system of the Internet, to a point where it went into cardiac arrest. And this was done by a relatively small group of dissidents. A group smaller than the ones that started the tea parties in 1773 and 2010.
But this group has far more power than either of their predecessors and, if united in sufficient number, are unstoppable!
We — the people of the Internet — are united in a principle of freedom that challenges core philosophies of virtually every terrestrial nation on earth. Indeed, forget the debate over whether the FCC's recent ruling on net neutrality is good or bad. The real point is that whatever its purpose may be, it's too little too late. The Party of We is in control.
You (e.g., the FCC) are not in control. Extend your sovereignty in conflict with the right of We to know what We wants to know, and You risk disruption of Your economies, Your communications, Your infrastructure. Disruption that not only challenges authority but that will cost You millions, perhaps billions.
We knows no sovereign authority. The power of We is virtual and without limit when exercised in a united front. MasterCard, PayPal, and other global financial institutions felt the wrath of We in December 2010 — the tipping point. The world witnessed the rise of the Party of We.
We can communicate instantaneously to its community of over 500 million citizens on Facebook — a community that may well reach a billion in a few years. We can access all the information We needs to know from the free global library on Google, global encyclopedia on Wikipedia, and global photographic and image repository on Flickr. And whatever We needs to globally communicate, We need only send an e-mail, tweet a tweet, post a comment or video, or get LinkedIn. And it doesn't cost We a dime to do so.
But the most profound lesson in this tipping point is that while We responded responsibly and backed off the financial shutdown once the citizens of We decided they'd made a mistake and attacked innocent parties, there is no guarantee that We will always act responsibly. Or worse, We might cause unprecedented damage before We corrects its course.
Because unlike the tea parties of 1773 and 2010, the Party of We has only one plank in its platform — transparency. That is far more powerful than anything colonists in 1773 or Tea Party revelers in 2010 could conceive. And there is no defense short of shutting down the Internet and sending the world's economy back to the Dark Ages of the 20th Century.
The rise of the Party of We is the most profound tipping point in global discourse since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that first established the concept of sovereign nations, something we can now count as the latest entry on the list of endangered species.
Wood is a partner in the New York office of Reed Smith. He specializes in media and entertainment law and is editor of Network Interference — a Legal Guide to the Commercial Risks and Rewards of the Social Media Phenomenon, a White Paper on how social media globally impacts every level of business. The White Paper is available here. Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.