WikiLeaks, the website under fire for leaking classified U.S. government documents, may be impossible to silence even as its founder sits in jail and American prosecutors contemplate espionage charges.
The website, which releases leaked files online, can replicate its data if shut down and doesn’t need a high-profile leader like founder Julian Assange, said John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which promotes freedom of information on the Internet.
“As much as I hate to say it, he may be more of a liability than asset at the moment,” Barlow said in an interview. “I am committed to seeing that he gets justice, but WikiLeaks cannot just be the extension of one person who can, as we see, be taken out.”
Assange, 39, has a second U.K. court hearing tomorrow after being denied bail in an extradition fight with Sweden, where he faces rape allegations. His Dec. 7 arrest came nine days after WikiLeaks began posting selections from a group of about 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic communications, drawing condemnation from the Justice Department and U.S. allies.
WikiLeaks gained prominence in April when it posted U.S. military documents, including a video of a July 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters television cameraman and his driver. Created in 2006, WikiLeaks posts documents “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth,” according to its website.
U.S. Criminal Investigation
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference on Nov. 29 that the Justice Department was conducting a criminal investigation into the release of government documents, saying such leaks put lives at risk. On Dec. 9, Holder said the agency was probing cyber attacks against companies perceived to be hostile to WikiLeaks.
Stuart Slotnick, a lawyer with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC in New York and former federal prosecutor, said the U.S. will most likely charge Assange, and possibly WikiLeaks itself, with violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers in the U.K., said her client was seeking legal advice regarding possible U.S. charges and calls for his prosecution from “high-profile” public officials.
“Any prosecution under the Espionage Act would be unconstitutional and call into question First Amendment protections for all media organizations,” Robinson said in an e-mail.
Even if the government wins such a case, it could be futile, Slotnick said.
“It might ultimately prove to be impossible to shut WikiLeaks down because of their network of ‘mirror’ websites,’” Slotnick said in an interview. “As soon as they shut one down, another one will appear.”
A mirror site is a copy of a website hosted in a different location. WikiLeaks was mirrored on 1,559 sites hosted in Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Poland and other countries as of Dec. 10, according to its website.
Even with its data secure, WikiLeaks’ ability to raise money is being cramped. EBay Inc.’s PayPal unit restricted an account that raised money for WikiLeaks after the State Department published a Nov. 27 letter about possible violations of U.S. law. MasterCard Inc. and Visa Europe Ltd. have also barred WikiLeaks from using their brands to collect cash.
‘Waste of Time’
Such attempts to constrain WikiLeaks’ resources are probably a “total waste of time,” Peter Sommer, a professor at the London School of Economics’ Information Systems Integrity Group, said by phone. “The stuff is out there, and it will continue to be circulated.”
Mark Stephens, another Assange lawyer in London, said WikiLeaks can survive without access to Visa or MasterCard.
“There are a lot of very wealthy individuals who are prepared to stand behind them and support them financially,” Stephens said. WikiLeaks’ revelations “will most assuredly continue” without Assange, he said.
Stephens and Robinson regularly represent media organizations, including Bloomberg News.
Assange was denied bail by a U.K. judge last week as Swedish prosecutors seek his extradition as part of a rape and sexual molestation investigation. U.K. prosecutors said at a Dec. 7 hearing that some claims relate to whether Assange failed to use condoms during sex and may have exploited a woman while she was sleeping.
Assange denies the allegations and Stephens has said the case may be “politically motivated.”
Even without Assange, WikiLeaks’ mission can be accomplished due to the large supply of sympathetic people willing to hack or distribute data from companies and governments, said John D’Arcy, a professor of information technology management at the University of Notre Dame.
“If the U.S. government were to shut WikiLeaks down, that wouldn’t solve anything,” D’Arcy said in an interview. “The issue isn’t so much WikiLeaks; it’s the fact that the government is vulnerable to insider breaches.”
As Assange awaits tomorrow’s scheduled hearing in London, two WikiLeaks servers remain safe in Stockholm, where they are hosted by the Internet service provider Bahnhof AB, in a mountain-cavity facility in the city’s Soedermalm district.
Bahnhof Chief Executive Officer Anna Mossberg said the company hasn’t been contacted or pressured by any government.
“The two things that would cause us to drop a client would be if they stop paying invoices or if the Swedish police would contact us and say that the customer is doing something illegal,” Mossberg said by phone.
Assange was denied residency in Sweden, which would have allowed him to establish WikiLeaks as a Swedish publication protected by the constitution.
Attempts by governments and corporations to shut WikiLeaks down are doomed to fail, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Barlow said.
“The institutions of the industrial period -- the nation-states and corporations -- are powerful and ruthless,” he said. “But they’re not as agile, adaptive, or determined as we are.”