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Why Booting WikiLeaks Off Amazon Is One Step in a "Never Ending Process"

Leslie Phillips, communications director for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, speaks to Fast Company about the hunt for WikiLeaks' hosts and how it closely mirrors the hunt for its founder, Julian Assange.

On Wednesday, Amazon kicked WikiLeaks from its servers after queries from the office of Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is handling the issue. But soon after leaving Amazon, WikiLeaks massive trove of government documents was back online, hosted by a different server.

The hunt for WikiLeaks' hosts very much mirrors the hunt for its founder Julian Assange, who so far has escaped international warrants for his arrest. After bouncing from server to server and suffering from several overwhelming DDoS attacks, WikiLeaks' cables are as accessible as ever, indicating that perhaps officials have a better chance of stopping Assange than they do WikiLeaks itself.

To learn more about the situation, we spoke with Leslie Phillips, communications director for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Fast Company: What exactly is the goal of pulling WikiLeaks from Amazon? It's already out in the public domain at this point.

Leslie Phillips: Well, first of all, the Senator didn't specifically ask Amazon to remove it. We saw a press report that Amazon was hosting the site, and staffers called Amazon with a list of questions including: Are you aware of this? Are there plans to take it down?

Amazon called us Wednesday and said that they had terminated their relationship with WikiLeaks.

Thinking back to when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, that was print. Now, in the age of the Internet, it seems impossible to contain this information.

A lot of this information is on the websites of the Times and the Guardian. But Amazon is different. It's a technical company that's providing a service to WikiLeaks that enables it to do what it's doing. It's a different situation.

Of course. I meant it in the sense that there doesn't seem to be much the government can do here.

Where we see instances that we think are wrong, Senator Lieberman will take action. It's like the violent Islamist videos that are up on YouTube. We ask them to take them down. They're taken down, and they're put back up again. If we see that there's more stuff up, we ask them to take it down again. We understand that it's a never ending process.

The point is, it sends a message. The Senator I think hopes that in the case of WikiLeaks, it'll send a message to others that they have a certain responsibility not to host WikiLeaks.

Amazon obviously doesn't want to be associated with WikiLeaks.

No, it doesn't. As you know, the way Amazon works, it's possible they were not aware. It's a self-regulating site, and you don't have traditional contracts.

In Senator Lieberman's statement, it was phrased that he calls "on any other company or organization that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them ... No responsible company—whether American or foreign—should assist WikiLeaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials." But this is not anything official. What exactly is the jurisdiction here? Amazon and others are only called upon to refrain from hosting WikiLeaks. If Amazon hadn't stopped, what actions could be taken?

I'm not sure. I'm not sure if there are any actions. This may have been a case where the most effective action was publicity.

It feels the government is almost powerless here. If WikiLeaks is hosted on Amazon and removed, it can be hosted elsewhere, very easily.

We don't feel like we're powerless. We feel like every time you publish a story about it, more people will know about it. So the information spreads, and it possibly changes people's opinions and behavior. Senator Lieberman, for example, has been working against radical Islamic extremism for many years, and it only just started catching on last year when the FBI announced a number of arrests. He'd been pursuing this for years, and eventually, the yelling was heard.

If you have the power to communicate, you are not powerless. We do not have jurisdiction to enforce the law. We're not the enforcers—we're the law makers.

That is what I mean. It's just publicity. When Senator Lieberman requests information about Amazon's relationship with WikiLeaks, there is nothing that can actually be done about it.

No. But hypothetically, it was Senator Lieberman who informed Amazon that WikiLeaks was on their site. It's more than just publicity. It's information that can change people's way of thinking and behavior.

This isn't the first time WikiLeaks has released confidential materials. How did past instances of WikiLeaks change how the committee addressed this situation?

We only knew about it because we saw a media report.

Meaning, you knew about it being hosted on Amazon.

Yes, and the Senator put out a pretty forceful statement on Sunday.

But what I mean is, the committee knew from the past that WikiLeaks had become a source of confidential content. Did that dictate any of the decisions you made this time around?

What dictated the decision was that the Senator saw that the information being released this time around was damaging to our national security.

It just seems that, in this age, there is no way to stop it. Anyone can upload it—there are so many servers online.

That may be true. I don't know.

The statement said the committee would be further probing Amazon's relationship with WikiLeaks. What possible consequences could there be for Amazon?

I can't speak to any consequences at all. It certainly depends entirely on the information we receive. I think the Senator likely will be asking a series of questions to more closely understand what was going on with Amazon.