Ruling to Shut Down Leak Site Called Censorship

Wikileaks.org allows users to anonymously post corporate and government documents they think expose wrongdoing. Last week a federal judge ordered the site shut down after a bank charged that it had illegally posted documents stolen by a former employee.

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From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A recent decision by a federal judge has got First Amendment advocates up in arms. The judge shut down a Web site designed to let whistleblowers, human rights activists and dissidents post incriminating information about governments and corporations.

NPR's Laura Sydell has that story for us this afternoon.

LAURA SYDELL: Judge Jeffrey White of the Federal District Court in San Francisco shut down a Web site called Wikileaks after secret documents were posted there, allegedly exposing how a Swiss bank hides the money of the ultra-rich. The Wikileaks Web site was founded by a large stealth group of Chinese dissidents, journalists and human rights activities. Its unique technology enables whistleblowers to post documents anonymously.

Mr. PETER SCHEER (Executive Director, First Amendment Coalition): A whistleblower can leak to the world without leaving any fingerprints, digitally or otherwise.

SYDELL: Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. He says Wikileaks has become a source for major news organizations. For example, someone posted a manual of operating procedures for the Guantanamo Bay prison that included advice on how to keep prisoners from talking to the International Red Cross. The story was picked up by outlets such as the Washington Post. China and other repressive regimes have unsuccessfully tried to shut down Wikileaks.

Mr. SCHEER: Despite that, we now have the irony that the stroke of a pen, a federal judge in the United States has done what the Chinese censors have not been able to do.

SYDELL: In his order, Judge White directed the company that hosts the Wikileaks site in the United States to take it down. Jason Schultz, who teaches at the University of California, Berkley, School of Law, says it is as if the judge forced the New York Times to shut down its Web site.

Professor JASON SCHULTZ (University of California, Berkeley, School of Law): Because in one story, there was some information that I find sensitive and unacceptable. You wouldn't do that because the freedom of the press is important.

SYDELL: No one from Julius Baer Bank in Switzerland would speak on tape to NPR, but a bank representative said the documents posted on Wikileaks contained account numbers and personal information that put individual customers at risk of identity theft.

Because Wikileaks is a low-budget and non-hierarchical organization, they did not yet have an attorney to represent them when the judge decided to shut them down, but there was an attorney present from the Web-hosting company, which enables Wikileaks to operate in the U.S., and that company, called Dynadot, did agree to carry out the judge's order.

Julie Turner(ph) is an attorney who helped Wikileaks in the past, and she was in the courtroom for part of the proceeding.

Ms. JULIE TURNER (Attorney): I suspect the judge did not understand the ramifications of the order he was entering.

SYDELL: The case raises a lot of issues about how the law will deal with protecting a free press now that the Internet makes it possible for anyone to publish. David Ardia of Harvard Law School says it poses a challenge when there isn't a big media organization to sue.

Mr. DAVID ARDIA (Director, Citizen Media Low Project, Harvard Law School): In the past when there were these kinds of legal fights going on, it usually involved a large, established media organization that would hire the best lawyers, and you would have a real battle of titans over these issues, and the judge would have the benefit of well-crafted legal arguments on both sides.

SYDELL: This case also proves something else about the new world of Web publishing: It's impossible to take back information once it's out. Wikileaks has servers all over the world, and those outside the country are still posting the bank documents, and now that the case is notorious, more people are looking at them. Jonathan Werve is with Global Integrity, an anti-corruption organization.

Mr. JONATHAN WERVE (Director of Operations, Global Integrity): As soon as somebody tries to suppress information on the Internet, that information becomes tremendously valuable to other people, and they really work to rebroadcast that. So it's kind of like throwing gasoline on a fire.

SYDELL: Wikileaks now also has many advocates very willing to make its case in court. They will have another opportunity to do that. Judge White has scheduled a hearing for February 29th.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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