State Power and the Response to Wikileaks

by Henry Farrell on December 8, 2010

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”: (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. I have no doubt that it was US political pressure which caused Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks, EveryDNS to break’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.

Crossposted (with very slightly different text) from “The Monkey Cage”:

The Goggles Do Nothing

by Henry Farrell on December 8, 2010

I’ve been wanting to jump back into the steampunk wars and “Patrick Nielsen Hayden”: on “Cosma Shalizi”: on “Felix Gilman”: (to whom many intellectual roads are beginning to lead …) gives me the opening that I was looking for. Cosma’s thesis is that we have already had a singularity.

bq. The Singularity has happened; we call it “the industrial revolution” or “the long nineteenth century”. It was over by the close of 1918.

and says why. To which PNH adds

bq. I hope Shalizi will forgive my quoting his entire post, but it seems to me to have resonance with certain recent arguments over steampunk. It might even hint at why SF (and fantasy!) keep returning to the “long nineteenth century” like a dog to its bone.

Which leads me to the following speculations (below the fold).
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The coming labour shortage?

by Chris Bertram on December 8, 2010

I’ve been reading Doug Saunders’s excellent _Arrival City_ this week. Full of interesting and enlightening facts about migration, about how cities work, about international development. One page, however, brought me up short, so this is a bleg aimed at economists and especially at labour-market economists. Saunders argues (pp.88-9 for those who have a copy) that increased migration of unskilled labour will be a persistent feature in Western economies “during this decade and throughout the century” because of the demographic pressures in those ageing societies. With reproduction rates falling below 2.1 and the proportion of elderly people in the population rising, immigrants can compensate for labour shortages. “… while immigration is not a mandatory solution to labour shortages, the combination of cash-starved governments and higher demographic costs will make it the least painful and most voter-friendly solution.” He then reels off a series of labour-shortage estimates (US to require 35 million extra workers by 2030, Japan 17 million by 2050, the EU 80 million be 2050, Canada 1 million short “by the end of this decade.”)
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X-Mas is coming! For me, for some reason, that’s the season of scanning and making picture books. Last year I finished Squid and Owl. This year I got around to turning all my Haeckelcraft Victorian card images of yore into a proper book, with expanded text and some extra visual flair: Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness: A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep – A Truly Awful Christmas Volume.

I’ve decided to make both available for free reading on Issuu – which is where I keep Reason and Persuasion. It’s a pretty good online reader, better than the Blurb preview feature. So: click here to read all of Squid and Owl online. Here for Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness.

A word of warning: I haven’t yet laid hands on a physical copy of Mama In Her Kerchief. I’ve made several books with Blurb now, so there shouldn’t be a problem. When I first made Squid and Owl there was a problem with covers curling. But Blurb was quick to send replacements.