News broke over the weekend that U.S. government authorities had successfully seized more than 70 websites that were suspected of trafficking in counterfeit goods. At the same time, media outlets were reporting that U.S. officials had briefed the nation's allies on the imminent release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of classified documents, including sensitive State Department cables. It all begged an obvious question: How can we have the wherewithal to shut down sites that traffic in the stolen intellectual property of goods manufacturers, and yet be utterly powerless to shut down a site that traffics in the stolen property of the U.S. government?
The fact that news stories about WikiLeaks almost invariably identify the outfit as a 'whistleblower website' is part of the problem. WikiLeaks is, in fact, no such thing, at least not in sense that the act of whistleblowing is commonly understood. When most of us think of whistleblowers, we think of people who are able to summon the courage and strength of character to publicize some wrongdoing that takes place within the organization that sustains them, often at the risk of retribution or personal loss. What WikiLeaks does is on the opposite end of the gallantry spectrum. It's as cowardly as it is criminal.
The word 'leak,' as a noun in this context, is nothing more than a euphemism for 'stolen property.' It's property that's transferred to a third party by people who don't own it. That's theft. And when that theft puts people and their nation's interests in harm's way, it's also criminal negligence. When the data dump finally came on Sunday, it was a bit anticlimactic, but it was still inexcusable.
News reports over the weekend, meanwhile, confirmed that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement had shut down scores of sites suspected of dealing in pirated goods. According to FoxNews, that action was taken as debate heats up over an online copyright enforcement bill that was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee:
The bill would allow the Justice Department to seek expedited court orders blacklisting websites suspected of piracy.
Supporters say the bill will help put an end to websites, some of them foreign-owned, that steal intellectual property, which is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $100 billion every year and results in the loss of thousands of jobs.
'The Internet serves as the glue of international commerce in today's global economy. But it's also been turned into a tool for online thieves to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, making hundreds of millions of dollars off of stolen American intellectual property,' Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the committee, said if 'rogue websites' existed in the physical world, the store would be shuttered immediately and the proprietors would be arrested.
'We cannot excuse the behavior because it happens online and the owners operate overseas,' he said in a written statement. 'The Internet needs to be free-not lawless.'
That sentiment also applies to a site that traffics in stolen government documents and classified communications, and action needs to be taken accordingly. WikiLeaks has gone to great lengths to secure its servers and to provide for data redundancy, so shutting it down wouldn't be easy, by any means. WikiLeaks in fact reported on Sunday that it was the victim of a DDOS attack, but at this writing it's unclear who was responsible for it. In any case, it had no substantive effect on the release of the documents.
USA Today concluded that 'Not much can be done' about WikiLeaks, although that isn't to say the United States is without options:
At the more extreme end, the NSA, the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies - including the newly created Cyber Command - have probably reviewed options for using a cyberattack against the website, which could disrupt networks, files, electricity, and so on. In the end, U.S. officials will have to weigh whether a more aggressive response is worth the public outrage it would likely bring.
Public outrage be damned. The right thing to do would have been to return the stolen property to its rightful owner. WikiLeaks' leadership didn't have the decency or the strength of character to do that. I say do whatever it takes to shut �em down.