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WikiLeaks avoids shutdown as supporters worldwide go on the offensive

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Afghanistan, where he learned about the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When asked about it, Gates said "that sounds like good news to me."

The group prides itself as an organization without a country - it has supporters worldwide but no central headquarters that would make it vulnerable to legal and political pressure. The organization's Internet infrastructure is spread over several continents, making it harder for outsiders to knock the site offline.

For those reasons, experts say, WikiLeaks remained relatively unscathed last week when the site's main domain name - wikileaks.org - was deactivated by its New Hampshire-based domain-name manager. Within days, WikiLeaks had signed up with more than a dozen other firms scattered across Europe, Canada and Asia.

WikiLeaks also simultaneously posted an appeal to its supporters, asking them to voluntarily host "mirror" sites. Hundreds of individual Web servers signed up, from countries around the world.

Similarly, WikiLeaks found new avenues for processing donations after PayPal and MasterCard announced they would no longer service payments for the group. The effect on the organization's financial health is not yet clear.

Inevitably, efforts to restrict sites such as WikiLeaks through financial and regulatory pressures will fall short, for the same reasons that government regulators have been unable to shut down purveyors of Internet spam, or various Web-based criminal enterprises, said Paul Vixie, president of Internet Systems Consortium, a nonprofit Internet infrastructure company in Redwood City, Calif.

"Something that's illegal in some countries but not others is very hard to keep off the Net, even though there's been some success in keeping it out of the countries where it's illegal," Vixie said. "If WikiLeaks is willing to spend as much money as e-criminals . . . they could probably remain online indefinitely."

The pressure on WikiLeaks is not insignificant. Amazon, the online retailer, canceled its Web hosting services with WikiLeaks after receiving a call of concern from the staff of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). At a technical conference Wednesday in Paris, a PayPal executive said the company's decision to freeze WikiLeaks' account was based in part on the State Department's declaration that the group had acted illegally in publishing classified documents.

The isolation of WikiLeaks has prompted cries of censorship and government interference.

"I can use my credit card to send money to the Ku Klux Klan, to antiabortion fanatics, or to anti-homosexual bigots, but I can't use it to send money to WikiLeaks," said Jeff Jarvis, a new-media critic and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. "The New York Times published the same documents. Should we tell Visa and MasterCard to stop payments to the Times?"

It is ironic, Jarvis said, that the U.S. protests against Assange's campaign of leaks come weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Chinese efforts to restrict freedom of the Internet. While Western governments are used to seeing secrets leaked through traditional media, they are struggling to adjust to a new era in which raw data can be easily and rapidly disseminated around the world.

"There is an information war, and it's about control," he said. "The choice is to either live in a transparent world or shut down the Internet."

warrickj@washpost.com robp@washpost.com


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