WikiLeaks Founder Arrested—What’s Next?

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December 6, 2010; Source: TECH.BLORGE.com | Does the arrest of Julian Assange in London today put an end to his WikiLeaks operation and the disruption it has caused to American authorities with its leaks of secret military and State Department documents? Legal experts have been debating whether Assange could be successfully prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act or whether he would defend his actions with First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of the press arguments, but he was actually arrested in connection with rape charges in Sweden, not for his WikiLeaks activities.

Assange may be wily and furtive, but WikiLeaks is not a one-man operation, and his arrest doesn’t quash the problem posed by the existence of the WikiLeaks website and its possession of hordes of still unreleased documents. As a result, the WikiLeaks site has been hit with a flood of denial of service attacks that resulted in EveryDNS.net’s terminating the wikileaks.org domain name.

So far, Wikileaks has been able to stay in operation by moving to other domains such as wikileaks.ch (Switzerland), wikileaks.de (Germany), and wikileaks.fi (Finland). How can the U.S. put the hurt to WikiLeaks, especially as Assange and his allies threaten a “doomsday” type of release that sounds like it might have been designed by Russian Premier Dmitri Kissoff in Dr. Strangelove? The answer is money: kill its ability to receive donations.

The servicer for donations to WikiLeaks has long been PayPal, a subsidiary of eBay. PayPal issued a statement before Assange’s arrest that it has “permanently restricted” the account that WikiLeaks used for processing donations “due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.”

WikiLeaks has access to other web-based donation processing sites, but PayPal is the industry’s behemoth and little challenged by competitors. Was PayPal pressured by the U.S. government to shed its donation processing role? It is hard to imagine that it didn’t get a call from chagrined officials.

Besides its vaunted PayPal donation button service, eBay has strong connections to the U.S. nonprofit sector. The chairman of eBay’s board of directors is eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, known to nonprofits as co-founder and chairman of the Omidyar Network, a foundation known for its strong commitment to transparency and openness in government (with generous grant support of the Sunlight Foundation, for example) and with close connections to the Obama Administration, both through Omidyar’s campaign contributions and the Network’s formal relationship with the Social Innovation Fund.

Other eBay board members include Richard T. Schlosberg III, former chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post and former president and CEO of the Packard Foundation, and Tom Tierney, co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, the nonprofit consulting firm working with some of the nation’s largest foundations.

Regardless of the legal issues surrounding the Assange and his organization, the internet battles will undoubtedly continue. Not long after the PayPal announcement, a group of hackers called Anonymous launched a denial of service attack in support of WikiLeaks aimed at the PayPal blog. Who ever thought modern warfare would be fought by people throwing torrents of junk e-mail at their opponents’ websites? —Rick Cohen