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'Hacktivists' unable to do much harm for WikiLeaks

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 02:14 a.m. HST, Dec 14, 2010

NEW YORK » The Internet drama precipitated by WikiLeaks' release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables has been called the first "global cyberwar."

But at closer look it's really more of an amateur brawl.

Although big businesses such as MasterCard and Visa were ensnared, the so-called "hacktivists" didn't do serious harm. And while one of the "big boys" of the Internet -- Amazon.com -- was an obvious target after it snubbed WikiLeaks, the hackers held off, fearing Amazon was too difficult to get.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks revealed itself to be less than sophisticated when it came to maintaining an online presence.

The secrets-spreading site was caught flatfooted when attacks and legitimate traffic overwhelmed it on Nov. 28, the day it started releasing the cables.

It reacted by moving the website from a Swedish base to Amazon.com's hosting facility. Because Amazon is self-service, WikiLeaks didn't need any pre-established relationship with the company.

Amazon has ample capacity and can withstand hacker attacks.

But there was a major downside: Moving the site to the U.S., where the cables originated, exposed it to political pressure.

Congressional staffers called Amazon.com Inc. on Nov. 30 to ask about its relationship with WikiLeaks. The next day, the company shut down the WikiLeaks site for distributing documents it didn't own.

That sent WikiLeaks scrambling to re-establish its Web presence in Europe.

It took WikiLeaks nearly a week to regain a stable online presence, using techniques it could have deployed well in advance of releasing the cables, such as hosting the site through multiple vendors and having excess capacity to handle heavy traffic.

A WikiLeaks defector says he's setting up a rival site. With its founder, Julian Assange, in jail and a poor track record when it comes to staying online, WikiLeaks might eventually be remembered as the pioneer of secrets-busting.

"Whatever happens to the domain name and the actual organization, the idea unleashed by WikiLeaks is going to continue," said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

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