At around 10PM EST last night, WikiLeaks was no longer accessible at the wikileaks.org web address. That’s the end of that, right?
The site is still accessible through several alternate domain names (wikileaks.ch, wikileaks.dd19.de, wikileeks.org.uk, to name a few), all of which point to its machine-readable IP address: 220.127.116.11.
That’s one of the problems with shutting WikiLeaks down. Even though it’s possible to kill off human-friendly domain names like wikileaks.org, as long as the site is connected to the internet somewhere, somehow, it can be accessed via its numeric IP address.
The Domain Name System (DNS) provides a plain-English way for human beings to access the numeric IP address of a given website. It’s easier to remember “Techland.com” than it is to remember our IP address, so the Domain Name System is an important part of the internet.
What happened last night is that the California-based DNS company that had been routing web browser visits pointed at the wikileaks.org domain name to WikiLeaks’ actual IP address stopped providing routing services to the organization due to an overwhelming number of attempted attacks.
Such attacks are known as distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks and while the methods are somewhat varied, most are comprised of automated software scripts that attempt to access files on a targeted website so frequently that the site’s servers get overloaded and shut down.
The DNS company that had been hosting the wikileaks.org domain name, EveryNDS.net, told the Guardian that it dropped WikiLeaks “to prevent its other 500,000 customers [from] being affected by the intense cyber attacks targeted at WikiLeaks.”
Within short order, several alternate, human-readable domain names sprung up to route traffic back to WikiLeaks. And while each domain name could theoretically be shut down one by one, the site would still be reachable at its IP address—inconvenient to remember, but not impossible to access.
In order for the WikiLeaks site to get killed completely, it’d have to be cut off at the source; the servers. The computers that contain the data for the WikiLeaks site now live in Switzerland, “a famously neutral country,” according to our own Tara Kelly.
Neutral though Switzerland may be, there’s no guarantee that the country will shelter WikiLeaks forever. So what would happen, in theory, if WikiLeaks’ servers moved endlessly from country to country until not a single country in the entire world would allow the site to operate? It’d be dead, right?
WikiLeaks could live on indefinitely not as a website, but as an organization that distributed its documents over decentralized peer-to-peer networks.
In such a network, there are no central servers to route traffic. Instead, individual computers are connected to one another by a single, small, easily-sharable file called a “tracker” that contains information pointing directly to every connected computer that’s sharing a copy of a particular document.
This is one of the reasons it’s been so hard to stop music and movie piracy—there’s nobody to go after except sites like The Pirate Bay, which don’t host any actual files except for the tiny tracker files that connect individual computers together so they can send documents, music, and video files back and forth between each other.
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It’s another reason why WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange uses Skype to communicate with people. Skype is a peer-to-peer telephony network that relies on decentralized connections between individual computers. There aren’t any centralized servers that can easily pinpoint his location.
Even if all the sites that hosted trackers got shut down, people could still send the tracker files around via e-mail, FTP, or any number of alternative means.
So while it’s theoretically possible to kill a website by systematically cutting off every avenue it has to connect its servers to the web, it’s exponentially more difficult—if not impossible—to shut down an organization that’s main goal is the widespread dissemination of documents.
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