LONDON – Wikileaks struggled to stay online Friday as corporations and governments moved to cut its access to the Internet, a potentially crippling blow for an organization dedicated to releasing secret information via the web.
The American company that directed traffic to the website wikileaks.org stopped late Thursday after cyber attacks threatened the rest of its network. WikiLeaks responded by moving to a Swiss domain name, wikileaks.ch -- and calling on activists for support. Two companies host the Swiss domain name, one of which is in France. The other is in Sweden.
On Friday, France moved to ban WikiLeaks from French servers. The French government has been one of numerous administrations embarrassed by the frank assessments of U.S. diplomats and their sources in a flood of cables released by Wikileaks in cooperation with major newspapers in several countries.
Industry Minister Eric Besson says it's "unacceptable" for French servers to host the site, which "violates the secret of diplomatic relations and puts people protected by diplomatic secret in danger."
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is also under pressure as Sweden seeks his extradition in an investigation of sex-crimes allegations against him.
Assange is in Britain, Jennifer Robinson, one of his lawyers, confirmed Friday. She declined to elaborate.
Robinson said that her client was in no way evading arrest, noting that Assange left Sweden with the accord of authorities there and has repeatedly offered himself up for questioning. She also disputed media descriptions of Assange as a fugitive -- saying that he was in hiding out of fear for his safety, not to dodge official attention.
Assange faces an arrest and deportation over allegations of sexual misconduct committed during his stay in Sweden back in August.
Swedish officials issued a Europe-wide arrest warrant for Assange earlier in the week, only to have to refile it when British officials got in touch to say that it did not meet their standards. Swedish authorities said they have now passed on all supplementary information asked for by British police, meaning that an arrest could be imminent.
Britain's Serious and Organizated Crime Agency, responsible for processing such warrants, declined comment when asked if and when Assange would be detained. Robinson, who also represents the Associated Press on media-related matters, said that she had yet to be served with a warrant.
The United States has what Attorney General Eric Holder calls "an active, ongoing, criminal investigation" into WikiLeaks' release of the diplomatic cables. Holder said this week that the release jeopardized national security, diplomatic efforts and U.S. relationships around the world. Assange also risks legal action in his homeland, where Australia says it would detain Assange if possible in response to the warrant filed in the Swedish case by Interpol.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is essentially being chased around the Internet by hackers and governmental pressure. For now, it's one step ahead of the opposition, but the site has been brought down numerous times over the course of a week.
The Domain Name System acts like a "phone book" for the Internet. It translates a domain name like wikileaks.org into a number that points to a specific host computer. Even if DNS is not working, visitors can still find the site by going to the numerical address.
In Friday's letter to the CGIET -- a government body that is part of the Finance Ministry involved in information technology among other industries -- Besson asked what legal steps could be taken to ban WikiLeaks from French servers.
He added that French servers who have hosted the site must first be made to understand the "consequences of their acts and secondly be made to take responsibility for them," suggesting possible legal fallout.
Wikileaks has been hosted by French server OVH since Thursday, the letter said.
The Guardian newspaper took down an live online question-and-answer session with Assange after being swamped with visitors. It was not immediately clear if it had been the target of an attack. The Guardian, one of the papers that has been posting hundreds of U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, later posted Assange's answers to reader questions.
WikiLeaks appears to have become the target of several denial-of-service attacks. In a typical such attack, remote computers commandeered by rogue programs bombard a website with so many data packets that it becomes overwhelmed and unavailable to visitors. Pinpointing the culprits is difficult. The attacks are relatively easy to mount, and can be performed by amateurs.
The attacks started Sunday, just before WikiLeaks released the diplomatic cables. To deal with the flood of traffic, WikiLeaks moved to Amazon.com Inc.'s Web hosting facility, which has vast numbers of servers that can be rented at need to meet surges.
Amazon booted the site on Wednesday after U.S. Congressional staffers started asking the company about its relationship to WikiLeaks. The company later said it ousted WikiLeaks because it violated unspecified terms of service.
After that, WikiLeaks moved back to relying mainly on Swedish and French computers, while under continuing attack from hackers.
"Since 2007 we have been deliberately placing some of our servers in jurisdictions that we suspected suffered a free speech deficit inorder to separate rhetoric from reality. Amazon was one of these cases," Assange said on the Guardian's site.
WikiLeaks' Swedish server host, Bahnhof, confirmed that the website had been hit by a cyber attack just before it leaked thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
"The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops," Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow said in a tweet reposted by WikiLeaks to its 300,000-odd followers.