Juris-imprudence: the silencing of Wikileaks.org

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that Wikileaks.org, the Web site that investigates international corruption, got shut down because it knew too much. Of course, I’m not one of those guys. Still, one has to wonder why a California federal judge shut the site down by issuing an injunction against Wikileaks’ Internet host. Public Citizen intervened in the case today, filing a brief that raises some compelling points.

If you’re not familiar with the site, it’s similar to Wikipedia but its mission is to expose corporate and government wrongdoing by allowing anonymous whistleblowers to post incriminating documents, which can then be reviewed, analyzed and debated by the Internet community at large.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, wrote an op-ed piece in the San Jose Mercury News that noted that “although Wikileaks’ silencing was sought by anti-democratic governments worldwide – including China, whose censors work mightily to block all access to the site – Wikileak’s plug was pulled, ironically, by a federal judge in San Francisco.

Scheer, along with Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, filed a brief Tuesday in the U.S. Court of the Northern District of California that argues the judge should have never heard the case because he doesn’t have jurisdiction. You can read the brief on the Public Citizen Web site (pdf).

Wikileaks and its Internet host, Dynadot, were sued this month by Bank Julius Baer, a Swiss bank that also has subsidiary in the Cayman Islands. The bank claimed that Wikileaks had allowed a former employee to post some documents that invaded the privacy of its clients. Those documents, by the way, may or may not show that the bank is involved in international money laundering.

But in the age of the Internet, it’s impossible to silence a voice like Wikileaks by simply shutting down a server or freezing a URL. As we’ve seen over and over again, stamp out one site like Wikileaks and a dozen more will spring up to carry the flag forward.

The Center for Citizen Media blogs explains how the Wikileaks site can stay up, despite the judge’s order:

The judge blatantly abused his power. Luckily, due to the nature of the internet and the anger of the online community, it had precisely the opposite effect of what was intended.

First, Wikileaks’s proprietors are not stupid. They have several “mirror” sites with other domain names (such as wikileaks.be) where the bank documents, among 1.2 million other documents contributed by whistle-blowers around the world, can also be found. Meanwhile, people sympathetic to Wikileaks immediately began putting up their own mirrors and distributing the documents in question. And due to the judge’s (and bank’s) utter cluelessness about how the internet actually works, the injunction (essentially a rubber-stamp of something the bank’s lawyers wrote) didn’t prevent the Wikileaks site from being visible via its more direct URL – http://88.80.13.160/ – which the DNS translates into words we recognise.