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WikiLeaks' online dance

December 3, 2010

As the organization faces swift pressure from American government authorities, Europe welcomes it. Three American companies have denied service to WikiLeaks after pressure from a US senator.

On Friday, Wikileaks re-opened at Wikileaks.ch
On Friday, WikiLeaks re-opened at Wikileaks.chImage: dpa

Early Friday morning in Europe, WikiLeaks' domain name system (DNS) provider based in the United States, EveryDNS.net, pulled the virtual plug on the controversial site Wikileaks.org, meaning that it is no longer reachable at that Web address.

Several hours later, WikiLeaks announced on Twitter that it was setting up shop in Switzerland at Wikileaks.ch, a domain name that is currently held by the president of the Pirate Party of Switzerland.

DNS is a key part of the Web, which translates Internet Protocol (IP) addresses - strings of numbers - into an actual domain name, like Wikileaks.org.

"EveryDNS.net provided domain name system (DNS) services to the wikileaks.org domain name until 10 PM EST, December 2, 2010, when such services were terminated," EveryDNS wrote in a statement on its website.

The Wikileaks.ch domain name is owned by the president of the Pirate Party of Switzerland
The Wikileaks.ch domain name is owned by the president of the Pirate Party of SwitzerlandImage: picture-alliance / dpa

"As with other users of the EveryDNS.net network, this service was provided for free. The termination of services was effected pursuant to, and in accordance with, the EveryDNS.net Acceptable Use Policy."

US government pressure on the technological side of WikiLeaks has meant that the organization has been driven further into the arms of European online service providers and web hosts.

WikiLeaks also is accepting international online donations via datacell.com, a web hosting company based in Iceland and Switzerland, and the site provides bank details for a German and an Icelandic bank to send donations.

On Wednesday, following the ouster from Amazon, WikiLeaks sent out this message on Twitter: "WikiLeaks servers at Amazon ousted. Free speech the land of the free - fine our $ are now spent to employ people in Europe."

American online support of WikiLeaks under government pressure

EveryDNS.net is now the third such US-based company that has pulled the virtual rug out from WikiLeaks in recent days after increased pressure from the US government, especially Senator Joe Lieberman, a conservative independent from the northeastern state of Connecticut.

Earlier in the week, the Seattle-based data visualization company Tableau, which had previously provided graphs and other services to WikiLeaks, removed its data after a public request from Lieberman.

Most notably, on Wednesday, Amazon.com also removed WikiLeaks' data from its online hosting services under pressure from Lieberman, saying that WikiLeaks' presence violated its terms of service.

On Thursday, Lieberman and two other US senators introduced a new bill, calling it the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination (SHIELD) Act.

The bill would amend the American Espionage Act, which already forbids publishing classified information on wiretapping or American cryptography secrets.

Sen. Joe Lieberman has been the main force behind getting American companies to distance themselves from Wikileaks
Sen. Joe Lieberman has been the main force behind getting US firms to distance themselves from WikiLeaksImage: AP

The new law would extend this ban to human intelligence as well, "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government."

However, if the bill passes, it would not apply to all documents that WikiLeaks has released up until its passage as the American constitution explicitly forbids ex post facto laws.

Further, on Wednesday, December 8, Osama Bedier, the vice president of the American online payment firm PayPal, admitted at a Paris tech conference that his company had blocked WikiLeaks' PayPal account based on a letter from a United States Department of State legal advisor to WikiLeaks.

This letter, which was published by Reuters on November 28, states that WikiLeaks' publication of the American diplomatic cables were "in violation of U.S. law."

Swedish company provides anonymous hosting

As of Friday, WikiLeaks' website was being physically hosted in Sweden at PRQ, in Stockholm. On Thursday, WikiLeaks had been using OVH, a French host, and Bahnhof, another host in Sweden.

"You know how they work, they move around a lot," said Mikael Viborg, the CEO of PRQ, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "They don't want to get caught in one place."

Viborg added that his company prides itself on providing hosting with "100 percent anonymity."

"It means that I don't want to know who you are and you might want to know who I am, but when the authorities comes to us, we have no way of knowing," he said, adding that WikiLeaks told his company who it was and that the organization, through an intermediary in Sweden, recently paid $11,000 for three months of hosting service.

A second French host, Octopuce, based in Paris, was also a WikiLeaks host for about six weeks up until this week, when the WikiLeaks site sustained a decent-sized cyberattack of 10 gigabits per second.

"We are no longer hosting as of Wednesday since they had a great number increasing distributed denial of service attacks, and the latest one was too much for our infrastructure and we were forced to ask them to find another safe haven for their machines," said Benjamin Sontag, the head of Octopuce, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

He said WikiLeaks came to Octopuce, adding that his company currently hosts a number of high-profile French sites, including the highly respected journal Le Monde Diplomatique.

"One of our current customers knew them and they asked us to give [WikiLeaks] some hosting and some infrastructure advice," he said, declining to elaborate on how much WikiLeaks paid, nor what specific services they paid for.

WikiLeaks continues to evade

However, WikiLeaks seems to be in a position where it knows that its speech is protected under the US constitution. So, for now, it may be nearly impossible to stop what WikiLeaks is doing, according to one American tech law expert.

"A company like Amazon has a right to decide who it wants to do business with - Amazon is within its rights to decide that it's not going to work with certain customers," said Marcia Hoffman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

The distributed nature of the Internet means that Wikileaks can be accessed and hosted from anywhere
The distributed nature of the Internet means that WikiLeaks can be accessed and hosted from anywhereImage: picture alliance/dpa

"If the US government were to have issued some sort of official legal threat or attempted to go to the courts to get the courts to issue an order to shut down WikiLeaks, that would pretty clearly be a prior restraint of speech. And that wouldn't be constitutionally allowed. It's unfortunate to see this situation where you have a United States senator putting pressure on a private company to revoke services because this is something that the government couldn't do itself."

Further, because US jurisdiction does not extend to European web hosts, WikiLeaks can continue to evade American legal action for now.

"If the US wants to do whatever it can to stop WikiLeaks' speech, the fact that these servers are hosted in other countries makes it even harder, because the United States doesn't have any leverage there," she added.

"They can certainly ask other countries to be cooperative to try to do something, but the fact that the speech is hosted in other countries makes it harder for them to actually do anything about it."

But Hoffman also pointed out that the Internet itself may be the US government's problem.

"This is one reason why it's pretty fruitless to try to stop WikiLeaks by any sort of legal tactic. Because as a purely technical matter, the horse is out of the barn here," she concluded.

The precise whereabouts of Julian Assange, Wikileaks' leader, are unknown
The precise whereabouts of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' leader, are unknownImage: AP

"The data is out there. The data is in a form where it can be hosted in multiple places by multiple people and if somehow some government managed to stop WikiLeaks tomorrow, that doesn't stop the speech at all. And that's just the reality of the Internet."

However, not all tech policy observers agree that WikiLeaks can hide forever in Europe's digital infrastructure.

"To a great extent, the 'legalities' of the locations of the servers are becoming less important," said Joe McNamee of the European Digital Rights Initiative, a Brussels-based advocacy organization, in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle.

"The US and EU and every available international organization are both working hard on reaching deals with internet providers to take extrajudicial actions against organizations accused of illegal activities - including taking action against resources abroad using control of key Internet infrastructure."

Tech-savvy Europeans continue support

Still, another one of WikiLeaks' hosts, Jon Karlung, chairman of Bahnhof in Sweden, agreed with Hoffman, saying that his company was treating WikiLeaks as any other customer. While he declined to say exactly what WikiLeaks paid for, he did say that its level of hosting and bandwidth would ordinarily cost 500 to 1,000 euros per month.

"We do not shut down clients unless there are solid legal claims to do so from the appropriate authorities and in Sweden that would be the Swedish authorities and not American authorities, and not an American senator," Karlung said, adding that his company has had no contact with a law enforcement agency concerning WikiLeaks thus far.

Karlung added that he has had no contact with Julian Assange, the elusive head of WikiLeaks, except for when they spoke on the phone initially to activate WikiLeaks' service "a few months ago."

In the end, even if American authorities are somehow able to shut down WikiLeaks on its European servers, the organization already has significant support amongst many tech-savvy people worldwide, which continues to be able to thwart the best efforts of all governments.

"I believe the public has a right to all information, in order to make the right decisions," added Mikael Viborg, the chief executive of the Swedish host, PRQ.

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: John Blau