Internet censorship is something we normally associate with countries such as Iran or China, but increasingly Western governmental and legal authorities are aggressively restricting the ability of users to view information unimpeded.

Such is the story with Wikileaks, one of the most essential websites launched in the last year and designed to publish leaked material from across the world, including the US Rules of Engagement in Iraq and news about Guantanamo Bay officials conducting covert attacks on the internet.

A California court this week has directed the site’s US hosting company to take it offline and remove all traces of Wikileaks from its servers. The case, launched by Swiss Bank Julius Baer, said that the site had posted material about its offshore activities alleging money laundering and tax evasion.

Although other versions of the site can still be accessed via mirror versions in India, Belgium and Christmas Island, the ruling has caused a wave of outrage around the world. The owners of the site remain defiant.

Judge Jeffrey White – a Bush appointee known for ignoring journalistic rules of confidentiality — has been accused of over-reaction. Julie Turner, a Californian attorney in California who has previously represented Wikileaks, told Wired that: “It’s like saying that Time magazine published one page of sensitive material so (someone can) seize the entire magazine and put a lock on their presses.”

It is a view shared by the US-based Project on Government Secrecy.

Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange told Crikey that the bank’s lawyers “refused to put the name of the client or any of their allegations in writing, other than a one paragraph reference to ‘copyright’, ‘trade secrets’ and ‘tortuous conduct’, and they also refused to name the documents they claimed were at issue, while at the same time claiming that some were fakes.”

Furthermore, “Wikileaks will not start censoring its sources under the basis of a phone call, so the decision to continue publishing was a foregone conclusion. This is where negotiations were left and Wikileaks didn’t hear from them again before the case was run.”

Assange told Crikey that this “unconstitutional” move should concern anybody who believes in the democratisation of the internet.

“Censorship… is a live problem in the West”, he said, “but to censor, not Wikileaks servers, or where the documents concerned were located, but the registration of a word used for the Wikileaks project as a whole (including its email addresses, and so on) is… unprecedented digital new speak.”

The last few years have seen a steadily growing number of cases featuring wealthy litigants threatening, and often succeeding, against owners of websites that publish uncomfortable truths. Exiled Iranian blogger Hoder is a recent example.

As I detail in my forthcoming book about the internet in repressive regimes, Western multinationals and many governments, including Australia, seem determined to also control “subversive” material on the net, liberally borrowing from the master in the field, China.

Antony Loewenstein is the author of the best-selling book My Israel Question (Melbourne University Publishing, 2007) and his new book, on the web in non-democratic regimes, will be published by MUP later this year.

Peter Fray

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