Listed species

Internet

There are two things that everyone knows they must say to appear knowledgeable about the MI6 affair, so it's safe to assume that they're both wrong. The first is that this list of 100 names could be read by everyone on the Internet, and the second is that once something has been published there, it will live for ever and be impossible to censor. In fact "published on the Internet" is an almost completely meaningless phrase: if something has not been indexed by one of the major search engines, then it is to all intents and purposes invisible, and might as well never have been published at all. If the Vogons were to publish on the Internet their intention to demolish Earth in three months' time, they would be completely safe from irritating feedback unless they were also prepared to spend hours getting the site listed by Yahoo! and Hotbot as well.

The original list appeared in two places where it is true that no one in their right mind would ever look for anything: the Usenet group alt.talk.royalty, and the website of the American conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, who believes that the British royal family is behind the world drugs trade, and whose front page as I write offers a pamphlet on "The evil that is Al Gore". It is almost certain that the British press would have missed it entirely without a D notice to inform them that there was something to look for; and even with that D notice, it took more than 48 hours before the list was found by at least two of the newspapers I talked with. After all, the shorter version of the list, naming only ten officers, had been published last autumn, as part of a claim that MI6 may have been involved in the death of Diana, and is still available at various weird Swiss websites. Civilisation did not then crumble.

The second grossly mistaken piece of conventional wisdom is the idea that once something has been found on the net, it will persist there. Things don't. Usenet postings, for obvious reasons, die away because they are essentially e-mail. Though there are sites such as Deja News that attempt to archive much of the history of Usenet, their efforts are necessarily incomplete, and it is almost always the controversial items which go first. There is a mechanism to allow the originator of Usenet posts to cancel them, by sending a message that follows them around the system and deletes all the copies it comes across. Such cancel messages are easily forged. The Scientologists appear to have forged large numbers in their attempts to stop the publication of certain of their own documents; and it looks as if the British security services did the same thing to the alt.talk.royalty message - but only after they had alerted everyone to its existence and thus ensured there would be plenty of private copies.

To preserve Usenet messages reliably, one depends on private collectors, who may have axes of their own to grind. Indeed, they are certain to do so: what else would justify the effort and expense of archiving things? But because of the untraceable way in which most electronic documents can be altered, there is no guarantee that an archived copy on a public website is what it purports to be. Organisations such as Microsoft and the Labour Party are quick to purge from their sites old policy documents that have fallen off-message. There is a particular problem with the large MI6 list. It has no provenance at all.

Even if the list started off as genuine - and that seems quite possible - it could perfectly well have been corrupted on its way through the LaRouche organisation. Beyond that, there is the problem of link rot. Anyone who maintains a website knows that addresses within it change, so that outside links that point to them will stop working; any search of AltaVista or whatever will throw up about 40 per cent of dead links, which must once have been valid or else they would not have been listed at all. Again, there is a rule of thumb that the more important a document is, and the more interesting, the more likely it is that its address will change.

Paranoia is the occupational disease of spooks and of anyone interested in their world. And the basic cause of paranoia is a tendency to overestimate your own importance in the world. So it's no wonder that paranoids are so perfectly at home on the Internet, where they can be convinced that everyone is paying attention to everything they have to say. Perhaps the government will have learnt from this fiasco that sometimes the best way to hide information for ever is to publish it on the web.