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The battle over WikiLeaks may be at a turning point. The site's supporters are now divided. They've long defended the group's right to free speech, but radical elements within the movement have gone further, launching cyber attacks on companies that cut ties with WikiLeaks.

The U.S. government is also now conflicted. It champions Internet freedom around the world, but in this case, the Obama administration is considering legal action against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for disclosing state secrets.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Julian Assange is fast emerging as a hero to those who think he and his organization have the right to publish the secret documents in their possession. The information future, after all, is in the digital domain.

Ms. MARCIA HOFMANN (Senior Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes.

GJELTEN: Marcia Hofmann is a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Ms. HOFMANN: This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online and the extent to which they can do it.

GJELTEN: In a speech just last January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed herself to champion this idea. Information, she pointed out, has never been so free.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of Defense): There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.

GJELTEN: But the administration is now arguing that by publishing classified reports on the Internet, WikiLeaks has jeopardized national security and the exercise of diplomacy. The Department of Justice is considering legal charges against Assange. Members of Congress are calling for legislation that would make it possible to crack down on organizations like WikiLeaks.

Evgeny Morozov, who blogs about the impact of the Internet on global politics, wonders what should be made of Clinton's speech today.

Mr. EVGENY MOROZOV (Blogger, Net Effect): This basic impulse to promote Internet freedom abroad is contradicted by the wishes of American policymakers who don't want to save the Internet because it undermines the power of America and also threatens it in many ways. It basically makes America look very hypocritical.

GJELTEN: That same point is now being made by Vladimir Putin in Russia, as well as by other world leaders. And reports that the U.S. government has pressured companies to cut ties with WikiLeaks has given more fuel to WikiLeak supporters. Sean Paul Cordell(ph), a threat researcher at Panda Security, has been chronicling how many WikiLeak supporters have joined in cyber attacks aimed at MasterCard and Visa, both of whom have suspended payments to WikiLeaks. These, he says, are protestors who might otherwise have been demonstrating in the street.

Mr. SEAN PAUL CORDELL (Threat Researcher, Panda Security): What I kind of attribute it to is you don't have to stand in a picket line anymore and I think people realize that they can fight back with technology.

GJELTEN: But this new turn in the pro WikiLeaks movement could also be problematic. Marcia Hofmann says her organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is disappointed to see the hack attacks on the websites.

Ms. HOFMANN: This is a free speech debate and the best way to promote free speech is to continue to speak about things that you don't like. And the worst thing to do is to shut somebody else down or silence them so that they can't be part of that debate, too.

GJELTEN: The outcome of this fight is still uncertain. Escalation by the United States and allied governments could radicalize the Internet freedom movement. But confrontational tactics on the part of the WikiLeaks supporters could alienate some of those who may otherwise sympathize with them.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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