A federal judge in San Francisco has ordered the disabling of a website that discloses confidential information, a precedent setting ruling that raises a legal challenge to the growing online black market in purloined data while testing First Amendment rights.
Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White granted a permanent injunction on Friday ordering Dynadot, a domain name registrar, to disable the Wikileaks.org domain.
The Wikileaks site invites people to post leaked materials with the goal of discouraging “unethical behavior” by corporations and governments. According to a report in today's New York Times, the site has posted documents said to show the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq, and a military manual for the operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, among other sensitive disclosures.
Judge White ordered Dynadot to disable the Wikileaks address and “lock” it to prevent the organization from transferring the name to another registrar.
However, industry analysts said that the ruling, while establishing an important precedent, likely will not prevent sophisticated web users from accessing information on the Wikileaks site and similar disclosure-oriented web destinations that may be similarly locked in the future by court order. For example, the Wikileaks site still can be accessed via its numerical IP address, despite the ruling locking down the domain name address.
According to the Times report, back doors to the Wikileaks site and several copies of it could still be accessed by users who know where to look.
The case in San Francisco was filed by a Cayman Islands bank, Julius Baer Bank and Trust, which said in court papers that a “disgruntled ex-employee” had provided stolen documents to Wikileaks in violation of a confidentiality agreement and banking laws. Wikileaks reportedly described the bank documents as “allegedly [revealing]…secret trust structures used for asset hiding, money laundering and tax evasion,” the Times reported.
In addition to his injunction ordering a shutdown of the Wikileaks address, Judge White issued a temporary restraining order directing Wikileaks to stop distributing the bank documents. A hearing has been scheduled for February 29.
While the San Francisco case focused on a so-called “whistleblower” site, Judge White's ruling could have broad implications for any site that posts purloined information, analysts said.
In a statement on its site, Wikileaks compared the judge's order to the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not prevent the Times from publishing the secret history of the Vietnam War.
Judge White's order “is clearly not constitutional,” Harvard Law School professor David Ardia told the Times. “There is no justification under the First Amendment for shutting down an entire website.”