Does the World Need a Data Haven for WikiLeaks Info?

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The international cat-and-mouse game between WikiLeaks and various governments and corporations continues. In just the past few days, the site has been kicked off Amazon’s cloud-hosting platform and had its domain-name service cancelled by a second company — and even a data visualization project based on the WikiLeaks cables has been shut down. The news raises a number of questions, including: Does the world need a stateless, independent data haven to protect the kind of freedom of information that WikiLeaks represents?

Amazon removed WikiLeaks’ website from its EC2 cloud on Thursday, after Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee — complained about U.S. companies helping to distribute what he called illegal documents. The web company released a statement late on Thursday saying it wasn’t pressured into removing the WikiLeaks data, but did so because the organization breached its terms of service, which require those uploading data to have the rights to publish that information, and to refrain from uploading data that could lead to personal injury (some have argued the cables could jeopardize human-rights workers and U.S. informants).

WikiLeaks moved its site back to another hosting provider — one which apparently uses a server farm deep within a Swedish mountain, similar to the fictional data warehouse in Neal Stephenson’s book Cryptonomicon. Within hours of making that move, the organization’s website was again taken offline, this time by its DNS provider, EveryDNS.com. According to the company, WikiLeaks’ website was being besieged by hackers using a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which risked affecting other customers. (WikiLeaks originally moved its site to Amazon’s servers for the same reason.) After moving its data to a server host in Switzerland, the site was back up again on Friday.

Although both Amazon and EasyDNS EveryDNS had what seemed to be valid reasons for removing support for WikiLeaks, both companies were undoubtedly also painfully aware of the mounting political pressure from the U.S. government — both from Senator Lieberman and others — to disassociate themselves from WikiLeaks or face potential legal action. While many critics accused Amazon of bowing to pressure and failing to uphold freedom of speech, the reality is that private companies are entitled to do whatever they wish in the interests of their business and shareholders (within certain limits), as Derrick pointed out in his recent post.

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

So where does that leave WikiLeaks? Switzerland’s Pirate Party is hosting the site for now, but it could easily decide that it doesn’t want to risk the ire of the U.S., just as France apparently has. The organization has been working with Iceland to develop what it calls an “information haven,” which would be protected by new laws designed to shield whistleblowers, but it’s not clear where that effort stands, or how it has been affected by the latest political uproar. Some have wondered why WikiLeaks hasn’t already turned its data into BitTorrent files, which can be hosted in multiple locations and are therefore virtually impossible to remove.

More than anything, what WikiLeaks needs is a stable place to host its data — and potentially a separate DNS system — that isn’t susceptible to government interference or the kind of pressure Amazon came under for dealing with the site (although Assange said in a Q&A Friday at The Guardian that the most recent data has been distributed to 100,000 people in encrypted form). The pictures of the mountain bunker where WikiLeaks’ data is stored, and the comparisons to Cryptonomicon, reminded a number of observers of an early attempt to create such a data haven: The idea was to store servers in a former military platform in the North Sea known as Sealand — whose owner claims that it’s an independent country — but the effort never got off the ground.

With millions of servers in locations around the world, Google seems like a natural partner for WikiLeaks — and the company has refused in the past to remove controversial content from its sites, despite requests from the government, defending its actions based on the principle of freedom of speech. But even Google likely doesn’t want to take on Homeland Security and face potential prosecution. WikiLeaks may have to roam from hosting country to hosting country, like the 21st century equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the digital oceans forever.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user The Planet

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