Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Wikileaks #cablegate saga is that, unusually, computer technology plays a central rather than peripheral role in all this. And not just any old computer technology, but specifically aspects that are key...

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One of the many fascinating aspects of the Wikileaks #cablegate saga is that, unusually, computer technology plays a central rather than peripheral role in all this. And not just any old computer technology, but specifically aspects that are key to the open source world.

For example, indirect attacks on Wikileaks by politicians who adopted a nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach to hint strongly that US companies might want to throw its holdings off their services (I'm looking at you, Amazon), emphasised why the distributed approach of free software, which routinely mirrors software all over the world, is far more resilient. Wikileaks seems to have learned its lesson, and now has hundreds of independent servers scattered across the Internet mirroring its content.

That approach is possible largely because of Moore's Law – or, rather, its equivalent for storage and networking. That is, the gigabytes of information that Wikileaks holds is now easy to transport across the Net, and easy to store on any PC connected to it. A few years ago, both would have been well-nigh impossible to achieve.

It's a repeat of what has happened with MP3 files. In the 1980s, when modem speeds were measured in hundreds of bits per second, it would have taken hundreds of hours to upload just one song to an online server. And then there was the problem that hard disc capacities were just tens of Mbytes – the first IBM PC XT had 10 Mbytes when it was launched in 1983 – which meant that it would have been impossible to store a single digital music file on most home computers.

By the 1990s, modems were typically running at 14.4Kbit/s – the speed that the first Netscape Navigator was optimised for – and hard discs were big enough to accommodate many of the newly-released MP3 files. Today, with Mbits/second broadband, such files can be swapped in seconds; moreover, a £50 1 terabyte hard disc can store around 150,000 MP3 files.

Looking into the near future, it's easy to predict that you will soon be able to carry around every song ever written on a 1 petabyte USB stick costing around the same, or to store every film ever made on a 1 exabyte hard disc.

This is why increasingly repressive legislation against "piracy" will never work: there are simply too many copies of too much stuff already out there. Similarly, repressing Wikileaks' current information is no longer an option – and won't be in the future when further leaked material emerges, when mirrors will routinely spring up in minutes, not days.

But if the problems of centralised hosting and routeing can be overcome fairly easily, one other service is more problematic. A statement that PayPal would no longer be accepting payments for Wikileaks, after the company suddenly and mysteriously discovered the latter had "violated" its Acceptable Use Policy, exposed how dependent on it many non-commercial projects are.

Clearly, what we need is a distributed, open-source alternative, and fellow Computerworld UK blogger Simon Phipps has found one called Bitcoin:

a peer-to-peer network based digital currency. Peer-to-peer (P2P) means that there is no central authority to issue new money or keep track of transactions. Instead, these tasks are managed collectively by the nodes of the network. Advantages:

Transfer money easily through the Internet, without having to trust middlemen.

Third parties can't prevent or control your transactions.

Bitcoin transactions are practically free, whereas credit cards and online payment systems typically cost 1-5% per transaction plus various other merchant fees up to hundreds of dollars.

Be safe from the instability caused by fractional reserve banking and bad policies of central banks. The limited inflation of the Bitcoin system's money supply is distributed evenly (by CPU power) throughout the network, not monopolized by the banks.

Bitcoin is an open source project currently in beta development stage. Development is hosted at SourceForge.

Now, I have no idea how well Bitcoin works, or whether there are better systems out there (anyone have any views?) But I do know that it is vitally important that we fill this gap in the world of decentralised services. If we don't, it will continue to offer a proverbial Achilles' Heel for those determined to take out inconvenient truth-tellers like Wikileaks, and to re-assert the power and rights of the centre.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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