The secret truth about WikiLeaks

When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger––attributed to Confucius

Come, gather round; I’ve got a secret to reveal to you: WikiLeaks is not a website.

I mean, sure, it has a website. Several, in fact. It makes use of the internet to obtain and disseminate information. But it is not itself a website.

This seems to be a difficult concept for the establishment and sections of the media to grasp. When BBC News reported that:

US cables released by the Wikileaks website suggest that Yemen allowed secret US air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants.

It wasn’t really accurate. The cable was first published by the Guardian, who obtained it from WikiLeaks, and subsequently published on WikiLeaks’s own growing online archive of publicly-available documents. But the Guardian printed the information on paper, too. The web is just one of several media by which it was reported.

When Amazon dropped WikiLeaks’s website from its cloud hosting platform, it was an inconvenience for them, but it made no difference to the flow of information: five newspapers in five countries already have all quarter of a million cables. It doesn’t matter to WikiLeaks whether Amazon dropped them because Joe Lieberman asked them to or whether they spontaneously decided to. It matters a lot with regard to freedom of expression in this corporate age, but that’s another question. The fact that was soon back online, hosted in Sweden, is similarly irrelevant.

When the domain name registration was withdrawn, it raised difficult questions about the vulnerability of the domain name system to political and extrajudicial interference. It didn’t stop the cables coming, though. The papers already have them. And, although it doesn’t matter, WikiLeaks was still available directly via its numeric IP address, or through a number of alternative host names such as

That the powers that be—and I realise that there is no great conspiracy of authority here; the cables themselves tell us that!—appear to be playing whack-a-mole with the WikiLeaks website makes me think that they don’t really understand the problem in front of them. In fact, it leads me to suspect that the portrayal of WikiLeaks as a website might have been a brilliant piece of misdirection. People in general don’t tend to grasp information theory, but it’s sometimes particularly easy to laugh at just how little understanding some sections of the establishment appear to have:

The Defense Department demands that WikiLeaks return immediately to the U.S. government all versions of documents obtained directly or indirectly from the Department of Defense databases or records

(That reminds me a lot of this exchange.)

There are, I think, two important things about WikiLeaks. The first is the use of technology—of the internet and cryptography—to facilitate the collection of information from anonymous sources. The second is the fact that information is available in a digitised form. This latter property means that leaking a gigabit of information is hardly more difficult than leaking a single bit. If someone has the information and the motivation to leak something, it will be leaked. All that WikiLeaks does is to solicit this information actively. It’s a brand, and an organisation, and a network, but it’s not really a website.

Still, something must be done! And trying to shut down websites does look like doing something. Keeps ’em busy, I suppose.


  1. kzap

    Wrote at 2010-12-05 15:20 UTC using Firefox 3.6.8 on Linux:

    Great post, completely true. I’m still in awe of the stupidity of the “The Defense Department demands that WikiLeaks return immediately to the U.S. government” statement.
    This whole situation reminds me a little bit of the film industry trying to stop people torrenting by attempting to take down The Pirate Bay.
  2. Emma

    Wrote at 2010-12-05 17:03 UTC using iPhone on Mac OS X:

    The constant dropping of domain names, for those of us who live in a moderately uncensored society, serves as a reminder to how much we still have to achieve in freedom of speech etc. It smacks of patheticism but highlights how corrupt domain providers are and how they’ve allowed themselves to be manipulated and controlled like chess pawns.

    The fact that US authorities are now warning /threatening students not to re-post or discuss the wiki leaks, due to ‘potential future employment threats to said students’ demonstrates how fascist the US Gov is. Another reason to boycott all American!!
  3. Xiangdian

    Wrote at 2010-12-08 20:49 UTC using Chrome 7.0.517.44 on Windows 7:

    Thanks for let me know a secret that i didn’t know. I love truth! Wikileaks is very inspiring as a brand-new media for me, though it’s reported Julian Assange turned himself in a couple days ago… BTW, The quotation from Confucius is interesting.
  4. Greg Fleming

    Wrote at 2010-12-11 15:01 UTC using Firefox 4.0b7 on Linux:

    “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger”—yes, my dog does that, too.

    The best has been the ridiculous John Bolton’s suggestion that, basically, WikiLeaks’ electrons be removed from ‘teh interwebz’.
  5. Rob

    Wrote at 2010-12-14 10:33 UTC using Safari 533.19.4 on Mac OS X:

    How do you feel about what WikiLeaks is doing?