The First Amendment of the US Constitution has protected the rights of the press in many legal battles throughout history, but last week, when US District Judge Jeffrey White signed a permanent injunction (PDF) ordering wikileaks.org shut down, it was a disturbing indicator of the uncertain status of press freedoms in the United States. Wikileaks describes itself as "developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis," and indeed, although the wikileaks.org domain is no longer active, the site continues to be mirrored at various domains around the world. As Bob Egelko at the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the "site was the first to post the confidential Defense Department manual about operations of the U.S. detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, and has also posted rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Iraq." But it wasn't the publication of subterranean government documents that eventually triggered the federal government's wrath (though it's possible that may have played a motivating factor). According to the Chronicle, the judge ordered the site to be shut down, "after it posted documents purporting to describe offshore activities of a Swiss bank."
...the bank, Julius Baer & Co., requested the shutdown order Feb. 7, saying Wikileaks had wrongfully obtained hundreds of confidential bank documents, some of them altered or forged. Baer indicated that it wanted the site closed until the host, a San Mateo firm called Dynadot, removed all bank-related documents and made sure no others were posted. The documents contain allegations of improprieties by the bank in the Cayman Islands. Baer, in court papers, attributed the allegations to "a disgruntled ex-employee." The Wikileaks documents contain numerous references to the bank's former vice president in the Caymans, Rudolf Elmer, but Wikileaks has not confirmed that he was the source.In a press release posted in response to the injunction, Wikileaks compares their legal situation to that of the New York Times following the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. "The Wikileaks injunction is the equivalent of forcing the Times' printers to print blank pages and its power company to turn off press power. The supreme court found the Times censorship injunction unconstitutional in a 6-3 decision."
The order was written by Cayman Island's Bank Julius Baer lawyers and was accepted by judge White without amendment, or representations by Wikileaks or amicus. The case is over several Wikileaks articles, public commentary and documents dating prior to 2003. The documents allegedly reveal secret Julius Baer trust structures used for asset hiding, money laundering and tax evasion. The bank alleges the documents were disclosed to Wikileaks by offshore banking whistleblower and former Vice President the Cayman Island's operation, Rudolf Elmer. Unable to lawfully attack Wikileaks servers which are based in several countries, the order was served on the intermediary Wikileaks purchased the 'Wikileaks.org' name through -- California registrar Dynadot, who then used its access to the internet website name registration system to delete the records for 'Wikileaks.org'. The order also enjoins every person who has heard about the order from from even linking to the documents.What is frightening about this account is the broad scope of the injunction. While the judge could have simply ordered the documents in question to be removed pending litigation, he instead chose to follow the wishes of the bank and issue a permanent injunction against the entire site. Though the move was essentially meaningless, wikileaks states in their release that, "in order to deal with Chinese censorship, Wikileaks has many backup sites such as wikileaks.be (Belgium) and wikileaks.de (Germany) which remain active," it does demonstrate dramatic departure from the notion of a free and independent press unhindered by government influence. "Wikileaks never expected to be using the alternative servers to deal with censorship attacks, from, of all places, the United States," but it's a good thing they already had a plan in place after dealing with censorship around the world. How many US outlets have had the foresight to develop such a contingency plan? Until last week, the notion that such a precaution would be necessary to protect the flow of information within the United States was probably quite a stretch, but after White's ruling, perhaps such data redundancy plans are long overdue.