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WikiLeaks is a real contender for the history books

News may be the first draft of history, but as all writers know, most first drafts end up in the trash. Nobody knows which major happenings of the moment will have lasting importance. Who can say how much weight historians will assign even to 9/11; for all its seemingly epoch-making importance it may be eclipsed by developments we can’t foresee, and may get only a nod when the histories of our day are written.

So too Time magazine’s decision to crown Mark Zuckerberg, the wunderkind behind Facebook, as its Person of the Year, while bypassing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who the magazine’s editor declared would be no more than “a footnote five years from now.’’

Whether Time is right, only time will tell. But I think not. To me, the continuing WikiLeaks affair has the makings of a watershed moment in media history, the opening salvo in a war over information supremacy in the Digital Age.

This is a big deal. The quiet ferocity of the U.S.-led reprisal against WikiLeaks for publishing government secrets attests to how seriously authorities are taking this:

n The presumed leaker of the material that annoyed Washington is a young Army private named Bradley Manning; though not formally charged, Manning has been jailed for months in a brutal solitary confinement usually reserved for irredeemable multiple offenders and apparently intended to destroy his mind.

n Assange has been hunted down in Britain with a zeal so exceptional it would be surprising if he’d been accused of genocide, not some borderline misconduct in a Swedish bedroom. He may yet be charged with espionage.

n Global paymasters Visa, Mastercard and PayPal suddenly decided duty compelled them to cut off financial services to WikiLeaks, and a bank account it maintained in Geneva was shut down by Swiss authorities, a rare departure from Switzerland’s ancestral embrace of absolutely anyone whose checks clear.

Beyond that, one can only imagine the secret countermeasures being undertaken -- securing files, deterring and tracking down would-be pilferers, monitoring WikiLeaks visitors, feeding the site bogus information to undermine its credibility.

WikiLeaks is tough and resourceful. It has been embarrassing governments worldwide since its launch in December 2006, a nimble, carefully engineered global network with 20 servers and hundreds of domain names, intended, as Assange told the New Yorker magazine this year, to be “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis.” Its designers say removing material from WikiLeaks would practically require dismantling the Internet itself. In reprisal for the financial services cutoff, WikiLeaks’ allies targeted the companies with a denial-of-service attack meant to incapacitate them with a flood of traffic.

So-called hacktivist initiatives such as Anonymous and the Swiss Pirate Party have mobilized hyper-sophisticated networks of committed geeks rallying to the cause. Like WikiLeaks itself, these networks are smart and elusive, and reside in shifting constellations of encrypted computers all but impossible to detect, let alone silence.

In a thoughtful column in The Washington Post, Tim Hwang, an Internet researcher formerly with Harvard’s Berkman Center, proposes “long war” as a metaphor for the faceoff between a freewheeling, decentralized Internet culture and the forces of an offline world built on centralization -- between those, he says, who want to remake the world in the Internet’s image and those who want the Internet reshaped in the world’s image.

To me, the effort to develop, populate and control the rich new digital space has been a kind of colonization. Spearheaded by the military -- the Internet began as a computer network designed to survive nuclear attack -- powerful institutions from government and business implanted their operations online as a way to extend their offline dominion.

But the New World casts a spell of its own over the settlers, some of them anyway, intoxicated by the promise of an informational universe of greater freedom, egalitarianism and accountability. Thus do decolonization movements arise.

What should be clear is just how politically agnostic the digital world really is. True, the technologies enable unification of control over oceans of secret information and permit breathtaking surveillance and unparalleled intrusions into hitherto private realities.

But the Internet also arrived shrink-wrapped in millennialist promise, as a transformative and emancipatory event offering an unprecedented universalization of the capacity to know, to speak and to be heard, an equalization of expressive rights that enables every schnook with a laptop to be a broadcaster.

That tension will be at the core of fierce conflicts for years to come, regardless of today’s success of WikiLeaks or of those who want to delete it.

Edward Wasserman, a veteran South Florida newspaper editor and writer, is the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.