Technology makes WikiLeaks elusive (Feature)
By Jay Dougherty Dec 8, 2010, 2:06 GMT
Washington - Can WikiLeaks really be stopped? The United States government hopes so, as it is reportedly looking at all possible ways to prosecute its founder, Julian Assange, and bring down his now famous whistle-blowing website. And bowing to political and public pressure, company after company is lining up to publicly disassociate itself from WikiLeaks. The latest to pull the plug are Amazon.com, which provided web services, and PayPal, the payment processor. Both claimed that WikiLeaks violated a terms of service agreement.
Despite these headwinds, WikiLeaks' story - and its influence - just seems to keep growing. The reasons lie in part, of course, in the WikiLeaks mission, which seeks to disseminate heretofore classified information under the precept that all information should be public. That message strikes a chord with many. But the other significant reason that WikiLeaks is almost impossible to quash lies in the technologies - past and present - that are fueling the internet itself. Let's look at a few.
Part of the problem of shutting down WikiLeaks - for those who want to - is that the site is now 'mirrored' on over 500 servers around the world. Mirroring essentially means that a copy of the current site is maintained on that many different servers, and if one server is shut down, either by the company that hosts the server or by legal authorities within a country in which the server resides, a simple change to the site's 'Domain Name System,' or DNS, records can shift internet users to one of the other mirrors when the site is accessed.
That's a big reason why authorities in any given country have such difficulty in shutting down an internet entity that has gained support - and mirrors - around the world, as in the case of WikiLeaks. In today's interconnected world, unless you procure almost unprecedented cooperation from authorities in all countries in which mirrors for a site reside, you're going to have difficulty shutting an operation like WikiLeaks down, especially if the means to fund and run the site are shared by many people around the world as well.
--- Social networks
Heavily mirrored sites like WikiLeaks can in fact be brought down for a while - that is, until the DNS records get updated to point to the newly active mirror. But thanks to social networks, much of the WikiLeaks message - and news about where the site is active - can be propagated today through the major social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Right now, you can find WikiLeaks on Twitter as 'wikileaks' (http://twitter.com/wikileaks). There, you can follow the by-now overt battle between those who would silence the service and WiliLeak's attempts to keep its site up. 'Wikileaks servers in Sweden are under attack,' announced a recent Tweet from WikiLeaks. And another boasted that 'WikiLeaks is now hosted at 507 locations, planet wide.'
WikiLeak's Twitter announcements are also carried by over 15,000 other 'lists' on Twitter - essentially gatherings of announcements for people with particular interests. And WikiLeak's Twitter account itself is followed by almost half a million other Twitter users. Although as with other enablers of WikiLeaks, there have been calls for Twitter to pull the plug on WikiLeak's accounts, so far the service has refused to do so.
Don't do Twitter? No problem. If you're a Facebook user, you can follow WikiLeaks there as well, on the site's official Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/wikileaks). So far, almost a million people 'like' WikiLeaks on Facebook. And as with Twitter, you can use the WikiLeaks Facebook page to follow the latest leaks and news about the site's ongoing struggles with authorities.
--- Copycat sites
No 'good' idea on the internet goes uncopied for long. Whether you like the idea behind WikiLeaks or not, you can't argue with the notoriety it has gained. And where there's notoriety, there are copycats.
The essential ingredients behind WikiLeaks, after all, are not exactly secret. Take some fairly standard wiki software - which allows content to be freely contributed and edited by users, as is the case with the famous Wikipedia - and mix in an activist mission with visibility, and you have yourself another WikiLeak site.
Some are erroneously calling 'mirrors' copycat sites, but a true copycat site is another entity entirely that copies the mission or goal of a site like WikiLeaks. Activists in China area already reportedly planning a Chinese version of WikiLeaks. It's a phenomenon that would no doubt pick up steam, wrote Raffi Khatchadourian recently in the New Yorker. 'Shutting WikiLeaks down...would only lead to copycat sites devised by innovators who would make their services even more difficult to curtail,' he said.
--- Stopping WikiLeaks
So what's the solution to stopping WikiLeaks? Technologically speaking, it won't be easy. What some are attempting to do in reigning in the site itself is actually attacking the messenger, not the message. The better long-term strategy is undoubtedly to address the security leaks at the their source.
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