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.

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8 Comments

  • El Bruce

    Are people really not bothered by the fact that our government is pressuring private companies not to do business with another private entity? Just because they don't like them? We're turning into China here.

  • Grge

    Shame on you Amazon! Shame! You have just stepped to 'dark side'. And we were just thinking about using Amazon Cloud.... Wikileak on the decision making process at Amazon is required! :-)

  • Prokofy Neva

    Your hectoring is very obvious here, Austin. You seem to be trying to trip up this staffer into somehow "admitting" a tenant of your geek religion: that the Internet is unstoppable because everything on it is copyable and every file can always be transferred in a heartbeat to another server.

    But...that's really a sort of uber geek fiction. In fact, the Internet is made up of companies, providers, people who make decisions to host or not host content. And just like YOU remove content from YOUR servers every day FOR CAUSE, whether viruses, or spam, or hate speech, so can they.

    And they are not powerless, because they can decide not to facilitate a criminal operation like Wikileaks and make one less place available for them.

    Gee, the geeks didn't think it was "powerless" and "pointless" when Rackspace stepped up and said they wouldn't host the web site of that nutter that wanted to burn the Koran at his church. All the geeks thought that was pretty ballsy and pretty wonderful, eh?

    So it works the same way here. Amazon need not use its vast server capacity to make this large destructive project needing enormous server capacity (or so it seems) succeed. And it can do this not due to national security, although we'd like to think it would comply with those notions, and it can do this not with the threat of prosecution or a summons to a Congressional hearing but because *it's bad for business*.

    Yeah, *bad for business*. Consumer groups should have been the ones to beat Lieberman to telling Amazon that they didn't like buying books and waffle-makers from a company that was enabling theft of classified documents and undermining not only the U.S. national security, but the U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, which, by contrast with some of the characters they are dealing with in the world, including some pretty murderous regimes, looks like something worth protecting, even if you are on the left. After all, do you think it's going to get more left or more "progressive" than Obama? Not.

  • acarr

    Thanks for the comment, Prokofy. I wasn't implying that companies, providers, and governments are powerless to stop this information from being released in the first place; rather, once it's been leaked in the public domain (whether published by the press, hosted by disreputable/legitimate servers, or pushed out over BitTorrents), the task of removing it all from the Internet feels all but hopeless.

    That's not to say Amazon should host WikiLeaks--but did it make much of a difference once the materials were removed?

    I don't much subscribe to any geek religion, as you call it. However, only tangentially related to religion, this issue actually reminds me of a scene from Doubt, when Father Flynn discusses how difficult it is to undo gossip from spreading.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    Don't you feel that stopping this batch of WikiLeaks documents is just as hopeless as collecting the pillowcase's feathers? Hasn't the damage already been done?

  • Marcos Silva

    It's really amazing how shamelessly the government is trying to shut him down with fake accusations of sexual assault and BS. Everybody knows that it is very simple now to get public attention when the subject is sexual this, sexual that. The big reason behind this is very simple, Julian Assange can make more damage to the dark side of US than any individual in the history, including the crazy guy OBLaden.
    This is the part of USA that millions of Americans do not approve and do not want it. We do not need this crazy corrupt politicians and (mega corporations behind them) going after every nation trying to control the whole world with dirty manipulations just to make money, no matter what.
    America is the natural leader of the free world and we absolutely do not need this dirty games. For this exact same reason people around the world love and hate US at the same time, because those idiots up there in the congress approving any bills that send our own people to die, to kill people to defend their big money. Julian Assange is in fact a modern warrior for the right reasons.
    THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE...the truth will set you free...

  • Jym Allyn

    Does this sound familiar?

    "YOU CAN'T DEAL WITH THE TRUTH!"

    If the truth was known in 2003, maybe the "War of Choice in Iraq" would not have happened if the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction was made public. Or the "War of Choice in Vietnam" would not have happened if the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was made public.

    The US Military Code of Conduct says that it is illegal to obey an illegal order.

    It also is illegal to obey a US governmental decision that is based upon a lie.

    The real criminals are George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove.

    And I used to be a Republican.

  • Mike Kelley

    I think this guy has the biggest balls on the planet. And what he's doing is long overdue.

  • Gerry Wright

    This idiot, Julian Assange deserves a one week vacation with the Taliban and al qaeda. If he comes back he can shoot his mouth off some more. My guess is, Mr. Assange would get his Wiki Leaks fixed and we wouldn’t have to worry about that any longer.