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Wikileaks: Technical sanctions by Service Providers

December 26, 2010

Wikileaks has taken centre stage in the media recently, and continues to be a growing source of controversy.  Opinions are divided over whether or not the activities of the organisation are legitimate, but on a more neutral note, there are interesting questions arising from some of the technical difficulties it has experienced.

At a basic level, in order to have a successful website which is available to the general public, three things are crucial: a web host, to make the contents of your website available online; a domain name so that people can easily remember how to reach it, and pass this information on to others; and generally, a source of funds.  Aside from difficulties relating to political pressure, internal disputes and allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder, Wikileaks has had all three of these taken away.

After suffering a bombardment of cyber attacks Wikileaks took up residency on’s servers, however, the respite was short lived as Amazon withdrew hosting for the site not long afterwards, citing a breach of their terms of service.  The provider EveryDNS also withdrew its services, removing access to the site via the domain name

This setback was short lived, both due to the support offered by EasyDNS – a competitor of EveryDNS – and due to Wikileaks’ huge popularity.  The availability of access to the site via its IP address spread virally, and the top Google result for Wikileaks pointed directly to its location, bypassing the need for a domain name.  Arguably, the impact of even complete inaccessibility to the site for an extended period of time would be negligible, as the organisation has the support of three of the most prominent newspapers in the World: the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times.  These organisations have not yet been targeted with action intended to block access and it seems unlikely that they will be.

A major source of funding has also been unavailable since PayPal suspended Wikileaks’ account, compounded by similar moves by MasterCard and VISA Europe.  Additionally, Apple have withdrawn the Wikileaks iPhone app from their online app store, citing their developer guidelines, which provide that:

An app must comply with all local laws.  It may not put an individual or target group in harms way.

Despite the above problems, Wikileaks remains available at a Swiss domain name,, having enlisted the services of various hosting providers, including the French company OVH.  With regards to funding, Xipwire, Flattr and Datacell are all also standing their ground in support of the organisation, which is reliant on donations.

What is interesting, and concerning, about the withdrawal of service by these companies is that it illustrates how reliant organisations which operate via a website are on providers who appear to be taking a more active interest in the regulation of online content.  These providers rely on terms of business that allow for the suspension of service under a variety of circumstances, relevant observations here are:


Our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity


Wikileaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content … it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that Wikileaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy.


[Wikileaks] threatened the stability of the infrastructure which enabled access to almost 500,000 other websites


It is not so much the incorporation of such terms as referred to above which has caused concern, but the discretion with which these are enforced.  While MasterCard and VISA have blocked donations to Wikileaks, commentators note that they continue to serve other organisations popularly seen as more worthy of sanctions, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and numerous other providers are happy to allow Wikileaks to use their services.

The actions discussed above are causing a great deal of concern to proponents of free speech, and an open Internet.  Bill Roth, EVP of LogLogic has suggested that:

“Amazon’s decision to pull the plug on WikiLeaks sets a Dangerous precedent, and flies in the face of 100 years of precedent relating to common carriers. While there’s certainly a moral dilemma associated with WikiLeaks, there’s a genuine concern that common carriers are going to get into the business of censorship”

Dr Joseph Reger, CTO for Fujitsu Technology Solutions, said of Amazon’s decision that deciding on the legality of content “is not the job of providers. It has to be judged by a court of law.”

On a related note, if providers grow in size, pushing smaller competitors out of the market and increasing the barrier to entry, to what extent will the reduced availability of alternatives mean that speech online will become subject to their control?

The debate is ongoing, and is likely to continue to challenge strongly held beliefs worldwide concerning freedom of the press, regulation of the Internet, and transparent government.  We will certainly be watching closely to see how events unfold.