LONDON — Skirmishes raged across cyberspace Thursday between WikiLeaks supporters and the companies they accuse of trying to stifle the group, with websites on both sides of the battle line taken out of service or choked off by attacks.
The U.N.'s top human rights official raised the alarm over officials' and corporations' moves to cut off WikiLeaks's funding and starve it of server space — something she described as a “potentially violating WikiLeaks' right to freedom of expression.”
Navi Pillay also expressed surprise at the scale of the online attacks that have targeted major American financial players — in some cases denying access to their websites for hours at a time.
“It's truly what media would call a cyber-war. It's just astonishing what is happening,” Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
WikiLeaks has been under intense pressure since it began publishing some 250,000 U.S. State Department cables, with attacks on its websites and threats against its founder, Julian Assange, who is now in a British jail fighting extradition to Sweden on sex crime allegations.
U.S. officials say WikiLeaks' actions have thrown diplomacy worldwide into disarray, caused countries to curtail their dealings with America and, in the case of an earlier release of classified military documents, put the lives of informants at risk.
The Obama administration has put intense pressure on U.S.-based Internet companies to cut any ties to WikiLeaks, and many have done so, including MasterCard Inc., Visa Inc., Amazon.com, PayPal Inc. and EveryDNS. Those moves have hurt WikiLeaks' ability to accept donations and support publishing efforts — and touched off a bout of Web-based warfare.
Retaliatory attacks — which WikiLeaks says it does not sanction — have been claimed by a loose-knit group of “hacktivists” who gather under the handle “Anonymous.”
They are using a modified version of software generally used to conduct “stress testing” on websites, according to Paul Mutton, an analyst with London-based internet research and security company Netcraft, which is tracking the attacks.
The technique allows even unsophisticated supporters to participate in attacks because all they have to do is download the file, which is then remotely operated to send a stream of bogus page requests to target websites.
Mutton said the number of computers spewing out spam had jumped from 400 to 2,000 machines on Wednesday — relatively small numbers, he said, but still apparently enough to overwhelm MasterCard and Visa.
“I've been surprised at how effective its been,” he said. “You don't need huge numbers of people to carry out an attack like that.”
The surprise was shared by Internet activist Gregg Housh, who is involved with Anonymous. “I was surprised Visa and MasterCard went down,” he told The Associated Press.
Housh said Anonymous members targeted the companies because they cut ties with WikiLeaks “for what we consider false and made-up reasons. How can you drop someone for illegal activities when there's no proof they've done anything?”
That was a concern shared by Pillay, who said if WikiLeaks had broken the law “then this should be handled through the legal system and not through pressure and intimidation, including on third parties.
WikiLeaks supporters in Switzerland and Germany have threatened lawsuits against U.S. financial companies who have cut their ties to the website, while judicial authorities in France have put the breaks on the French government's effort to purge WikiLeaks from the country's computer servers.
The Germany-based Wau Holland Foundation, which has described itself as WikiLeaks' main backer, on Thursday protested PayPal's decision to cut ties with WikiLeaks and said about euro10,000 ($13,000) in donations had been frozen in the company's account.
The foundation rejected PayPal's allegation it was supporting illegal activity and said its lawyer had demanded that PayPal restore access to the account.
WikiLeaks' payment processor, DataCell ehf, said it was preparing to sue Visa and MasterCard over their refusal to process donations to WikiLeaks. DataCell CEO Andreas Fink said he would seek damages from the U.S. credit card companies over it, saying “it is simply ridiculous to think WikiLeaks has done anything criminal.”
Housh said the number of computers at Anonymous' disposal was rising rapidly, now about 3,000 strong. But he also said that supporters were running out of anti-WikiLeaks targets.
“So far today, no one has stood up and said, 'Me next,'” he said, noting that some companies threatened by online action — such as Twitter and Amazon.com, were considered too powerful to bring down.
Meanwhile the flow of online support has also sparked some solidarity on the streets. A protest in Australia — the first of a series planned there and in Britain — sent about 250 demonstrators into the streets of Brisbane, while in the central Pakistani city of Multan, dozens of people took to the streets to burn U.S. and British flags to protest Assange's detention.
Organizer Tariq Naeemullah called for the Australian's immediate release.
“The brave man was arrested because he was exposing the real face of the big powers,” he said.
More pro-WikiLeaks protests are planned for Friday in Brisbane and Monday in London.