International Relations

State power and the response to Wikileaks

Dec 7 '10

The US response to Wikileaks has been an interesting illustration of both the limits and extent of state power in an age of transnational information flows. The problem for the US has been quite straightforward. The Internet makes it more difficult for states (even powerful ones such as the US) to control information flows across their own borders and others. It is much easier than it used to be for actors to hop jurisdictions by e.g. moving a particular Internet based service from one country to another, while still making it possible for people across many countries to access the service. This makes it much harder for the US and other actors to use the traditional tools of statecraft – their jurisdiction does not extend far enough to stop the actors who they would like to stop.

However, there is a set of tools that states _can_ use to greater effect. The Internet and other networks provide some private actors with a great deal of effective transnational power. Banks that operate across multiple jurisdictions can shape financial flows between these jurisdictions. Information companies may be able to reshape flows of information in ways that advantage or disadvantage particular actors. These private actors are often large, relatively immobile, and partially dependent on state approval for their actions. They thus provide a crucial resource for states. Even if states cannot _directly_ regulate small agile actors outside their jurisdiction, they can _indirectly_ regulate them by pressganging big private actors with cross-jurisdictional reach. A few years ago, the US found itself unable to regulate Internet gambling firms which were based in Antigua and selling their services to US customers. But the US _was_ able to tell its banks that they would suffer legal and political consequences if they allowed transactions between US customers and Antiguan gambling firms, helping to drive the latter out of existence.

This is the topic of my “least cited article evah”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/annreview.pdf (PDF), where I argue that:

bq. states are not limited to direct regulation; they can use indirect means, pressing Internet service providers (ISPs) or other actors to implement state policy. For example, states might require ISPs to block their users from having access to a particular site, or to take down sites with certain kinds of content. More generally … a small group of privileged private actors can become “points of control”–states can use them to exert control over a much broader group of other private actors. This is because the former private actors control chokepoints in the information infrastructure or in other key networks of resources. They can block or control flows of data or of other valuable resources among a wide variety of other private actors. Thus, it is not always necessary for a state to exercise direct control over all the relevant private actors in a given issue area in order to be a successful regulator.

And this is exactly what the US is doing in response to Wikileaks. US political pressure caused Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks, EveryDNS to break Wikileaks.org’s domain name, eBay/Paypal to stop facilitating financial transactions, Swiss Post to freeze a Wikileaks bank account (in perhaps the first instance in recorded history of a Swiss bank taking residency requirements seriously), and Mastercard and Visa to cease relations with it. This is unlikely to affect the availability of the information that Wikileaks has already leaked. But it may plausibly affect the medium and long run viability of Wikileaks as an organization. This will be a very interesting battle to watch.