How the Barbra Streisand Effect keeps WikiLeaks online

PARIS - Mirror sites are keeping WikiLeaks up and running despite the loss of its original address, shut down by an American provider: welcome to the Barbra Streisand Effect.

The elusive, intangible nature of the internet has allowed the whistle-blowing website to keep a step ahead of its enemies.

For after its original web address was shut down, it was able to move to a second home at a Swiss address.

And in less than 24 hours, dozens of mirror image sites were up and running across the internet.

Some were set up by WikiLeaks, others by computer-savvy sympathisers determined to keep the information the website is leaking online.

For the mirror sites are just that: a replica of the contents of the original site, ensuring that the thousands of US diplomatic cables WikiLeaks has been leaking since last Sunday remain available for inspection.

It didn't take long until several hundred WikiLeaks mirror sites were listed at one online directory.

For as industry specialists explained, the strong libertarian sensibility shared by large parts of the online community means that any hint of censorship provokes an instant riposte designed to produce the opposite effect.

"As soon as a case of censorship blows up on the web, a community forms spontaneously and everyone replicates everywhere," explained Gregory Fabre, a systems engineer and co-founder of the site.

With information copied on to servers that could be anywhere in the world, trying to stop the information getting out is like trying to plug a leaking sieve.

"It's as old as the internet," said Fabre.

This is known as the Barbra Streisand Effect, said Jean-Marc Manach, a journalist specialising in internet rights and surveillance issues.

"A few years ago, a photographer took a photo of one of the singer's houses," he said.

She filed a complaint for breach of her rights and tried to get the photo pulled from the internet: inevitably, hundreds of people responded by copying the photo on to their website - thus, the Barbra Streisand Effect.

And as Fabre pointed out, many of the mirror sites could just as well be the product of individuals with no direct connection to WikiLeaks.

"The large majority of people do it for nothing," said Manach. "They recopy the site and put it on their server."

"What is happening with WikiLeaks has already happened dozens of times," he added.

"What they want to censor is thus duplicated," he said, producing precisely the opposite effect intended by the censor.

"Nobody would ever have heard about Barbra Streisand's house if she hadn't tried to censor the photo," he pointed out.

More challenging for WikiLeaks however was the decision late last Friday by eBay-owned PayPal, the online payment company, to permanently suspend their account on the grounds that their operations were involved in illegal activity.

A statement posted on WikiLeaks' site on Saturday acknowledged that this would hit them financially, as most of their donations had come via PayPal.

"What we are seeing here are dangerous moves towards a digital McCarthyism," wrote the group's founder Julian Assange.

"These actions, and the others like it, are not the result of a legal process, but rather, are a result of fear of falling out of favour with Washington."


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