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 WikiLeaks.org was soon back online, hosted in Sweden, is similarly irrelevant.

When the WikiLeaks.org domain name registration was withdrawn, it raised difficult questions about the vulnerability of the domain name system to political and extrajudicial interference.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 WikiLeaks.ch.

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.