Here's the abstract of my planned contribution to Platform Politics: A Multidisciplinary Conference, - Cambridge 12-13 May 2011.
The Pirate Bay and WikiLeaks. Platforms for radical politics of access
The two defining stories of radical media activism over the last few years have been The Pirate Bay (launched in late 2003) and WikiLeaks (launched in late 2006). The former's aim has been to highlight in the most drastic fashion the inadequacy of the current copyright regime. In order to do so, it established an alternative distribution platform based on free access to media products. WikiLeaks was founded to make possible access to insider information by encouraging whistle-blowers around the world to bring their material to the public, protected via WikiLeaks. Beyond protecting whistle-blowers, WikiLeaks aim has been to transform journalism by forcing it to publish – as much as possible – its sources so that the public can check the veracity of the claims. Its founder, Julian Assange, called this “scientific journalism”.
In my contribution to the conference, I propose look at the politics of these platforms in three ways. First, by analyzing how it has been articulated by the activists themselves. They are distinct from most previous media activists, in so far as they are not directly connected to traditional social movements and their political agendas, but are rooted in the hacker culture and its specific political culture, centering around access to (public) information, transparency of institutions and individual empowerment.
Second, I will look at the politics of the infrastructures. Each was built using open source software that has been adapted with very considerable technical skill. Each has been run by a very small number of people, using very little money (in comparison to what they achieved).
Third, I will look at the politics enabled by these platforms. Their initial impact has been destabilizing dominant regimes and each garnered significant resistance from the structures they challenged. Yet, in the space cleared by this destabilization of old media structures and their modes of control, we can see new networked structures emerge. P2p file-sharing is beginning to be used widely within professional, independent media, reaching audiences
comparable with, or exceeding, mass media. The case in point is vodo.net, distributing independent documentaries. WikiLeaks is re-invigorating investigative journalism which was under threat by the corporatizaton of the news media. In addition, publishing of the raw data (the leaked information itself) has enabled multiple stories to be told based on the same
material. The case in point is Tunileaks, set up by Tunisian bloggers, to focus in the 20 odd cables concerning Tunisia which had received relatively little attention by Western media.
I will end my contribution by raising the question whether these two cases are exceptional as platform politics or if they represent a more general model.