The decision of the United States Air Force to ban access to many of the world’s media websites — announced, in an apparent nod to 50s science fiction by “Major Toni Tones of the Air Force Space Command” — is illustrative of a type of governmental command-and-control attitude to information that has not merely been outdated by WikiLeaks, but has been rendered increasingly irrelevant over the last decade by online media.

Blocking a number of the world’s major media outlets — one prays USAF personnel are still able to access Fox News — reflects a gatekeeper mentality in which the world is divided between those who control information and the rest of us. But the ready conversion of information to a stream of zeroes and ones changes it fundamentally. Distribution, rather than control, is now the easiest way to handle information, and in any event control systems are only as strong as their weakest links. As the alleged circumstances of the leaking of the WikiLeaks cables illustrate, that link can be very weak indeed.

Governments the world over appear to be struggling to accept this, in the same way the entertainment industry has taken decades to accept it. Only recently, Attorney-General Robert McClelland wrote to local mainstream media editors in an effort to establish a protocol for reporting on national security-related information that might emerge from WikiLeaks, oblivious to the fact they have no control over what information Australians can access or the way they do so.

Politicians and bureaucrats — including military officials — need to understand the dynamics of the new information environment. The old-fashioned command-and-control approach simply no longer works.

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Peter Fray

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