msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/4/2010 9:00:10 AM ET 2010-12-04T14:00:10

Online payment service PayPal has suspended the WikiLeaks' account that the organization used to collect donations, it said in a statement.

U.S.-based PayPal said WikiLeaks, which this week released thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables, had violated its policy.

"PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity," the statement said.

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"We've notified the account holder of this action," it added.

A posting on WikiLeaks' Twitter page said "PayPal bans WikiLeaks after US government pressure."

PayPal is one of several ways that WikiLeaks takes in donations to finance its operations.

On Friday, WikiLeaks directed readers to a web address in Switzerland after two U.S. Internet providers dropped it in the space of two days.

The Internet publisher directed users to www.wikileaks.ch after the wikileaks.org site on which it had published classified U.S. government information vanished from view for about six hours.

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Can site survive?
Questions have been raised about whether WikiLeaks will be able to survive.

It is facing attacks in cyberspace and in the legal sphere. The site is assailed by hackers and has been booted from its U.S. server. Frontman Julian Assange is in hiding and faces allegations of sexual misconduct.

Although the future is uncertain for the website, it has opened a Pandora's Box of secret-spilling that some believe could prove difficult to reverse.

"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.

Ben Laurie, a data security expert who advised WikiLeaks before it launched in 2006, agreed.

"The concept is not going to die. It's really hard to keep things shut down if they want to stay up," he said. "Look at everything else people would like not to happen online — phishing, spam, porn. It's all still there."

Little is known about the day-to-day functioning of WikiLeaks. It has no headquarters, few if any paid staff — but a famous public face in Assange, a wiry 39-year-old Australian computer hacker with no permanent address.

He's on the cover of newspapers and magazines around the world, but he has not appeared in public for a month.

Assange, who is somewhere in Britain, is the subject of a European arrest warrant issued by authorities in Sweden, where he is accused of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.

If British police arrest him, he will likely be caught up in a lengthy legal fight against extradition and could be jailed.

Assange denies the Swedish charges, which his British lawyer, Mark Stephens, has said stemmed from a "dispute over consensual but unprotected sex."

He said Assange was happy to speak to Swedish prosecutors and had provided his contact details to authorities there and in Britain.

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Powerful enemies
Assange also has made powerful enemies in the United States, especially since WikiLeaks released thousands of secret logs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year.

With the latest leaks, U.S. politicians have called for him to be prosecuted for espionage — or worse.

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin asked on Facebook: "Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders?"

There has been talk of attempting to prosecute Assange in the U.S. under the Espionage Act or other legislation that might cover a foreign citizen.

"We are taking the appropriate precautions to the degree that we are able when dealing with a superpower," he told The Guardian newspaper in the U.K.

Assange acknowledged Friday that "I have become the lightning rod."

"In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good," he said during a question-and-answer session on The Guardian's website.

"I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force."

It's not just governments and the law with whom Assange conflicts. He is a divisive figure who has been accused of overshadowing WikiLeaks' work and appears to have fallen out with several former colleagues.

They include WikiLeaks' former German spokesman Daniel Schmitt, who has written a soon-to-be-published book about his time at the website.

Like a character from the 'Matrix'
In September, German magazine Der Spiegel quoted Schmitt as saying that Assange "reacted to any criticism with the allegation that I was disobedient to him and disloyal to the project."

Yet those who have worked with Assange say his charisma and passion are evident.

"You kind of get the feeling that you are talking to a persona from the 'Matrix' movies," said Icelandic legislator Robert Marshall, who met Assange while preparing legislation that aims to turn the island nation into a haven of media freedom.

"But his enthusiasm toward freedom of expression and the rights of journalists was very real to me," he added.

Laurie, the data security expert, recalled Assange as "fairly geeky, very smart, extremely interesting to talk to."

"I know a lot of geeks and I certainly know weirder people than him," Laurie said.

As WikiLeaks released the first few hundred of what it says are a quarter of a million secret diplomatic cables this week, pressure on the site grew.

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Amazon.com Inc., which had provided WikiLeaks with use of its servers, evicted it on Wednesday saying the website had violated its terms of service. The site remains on the servers of its Swedish provider, Bahnhof AB.

The next day, WikiLeaks' American domain name system provider withdrew service to the wikileaks.org name after it came under concerted cyber-attack.

Service provider everyDNS said the attacks threatened the rest of its network.

WikiLeaks responded by moving to a Swiss domain name, wikileaks.ch. On Friday, the French government moved to ban WikiLeaks from servers in that country.

Chased from one country to the next, WikiLeaks also appears perennially cash-strapped, appealing on its website and Twitter for donations to "keep us strong."

Recently it seems to have taken steps to put itself on a firmer footing.

Last month it set up a private limited company in Iceland as part of a move to restructure its global operations.

The organization is also establishing legal entities in Sweden and France, spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said, as bases from which to carry out tasks such as opening bank accounts.

The Icelandic government recently passed a resolution in favor of a bill that aims to turn the tiny nation into a journalistic haven by granting high-level protection to investigative journalists and their sources.

Backers hope the initiative, partly driven by Assange, will become law next year. Such a law could provide protection to a site like WikiLeaks.

'History will win'
Assange said in Friday's online chat that WikiLeaks had taken steps to make sure it was not silenced, sending the "Cablegate" material and other secret documents in encrypted form "to over 100,000 people."

"If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically," he said. "History will win."

Whatever happens to Wikileaks, the anti-secrecy cat may be out of the bag. Schmitt, the former WikiLeaks spokesman, has said he wants to set up a rival secret-spilling site, and others may follow.

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"I think the basic concept has a future," said Steven Aftergood, who works on government secrecy policy for the Federation of American Scientists.

"Anonymous disclosure of restricted records is easier than it has ever been. The virtues of transparency and government accountability are more widely recognized than they have ever been. Those two factors together provide a foundation for this kind of activity," he added.

"Whether it will be Julian Assange's WikiLeaks or the new German spinoff or another initiative remains to be seen," he said.

Benton, director of the Nieman Lab, said that means governments will have to develop a response beyond condemnation and legal threats. He compared it to music file-sharing, which was greeted with hostility by a music industry that soon realized it had to develop ways to make money from downloads.

"They can't think, 'This is an opponent we need to defeat,'" he said. "They have to think about how they are going to deal with it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Defiant Assange fights legal, online attacks

  1. Closed captioning of: Defiant Assange fights legal, online attacks

    >> israel.

    >>> he is one of the most wanted men in the world and tonight an arrest may be imminent for julian assange, the man behind wiki leaks and there are new problems for his website which have gone public with millions of military and diplomatic records. peter alexander is live in london for us with the latest.

    >> lester, good evening to you. even as julian assange's window is closing. the newest documents release detail extensive computer hacking operations o ridge nating in china. why were chinese leaders so obsessed with the web? because according to the cables they were googling themselves and unhappy with the criticisms they found. even as julian assange reveals more document, threatening damage and embarrassment to the u.s. and its allies, the legal process to detain the wikileaks founder for allegations of sex crimes is moving forward.

    >> in case he's arrested he will fight the extradition from whatever country he's arrested in.

    >> while assange battles for his personal freedom , he's also fighting to keep his site online. the latest technical difficulty? the website pay pal cut access to doning as to wikileaks saying its service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to ebb gaungage in illegal activities . meanwhile the game of cat and mouse continues with two american service providers dropping wonning ileaks and france banning the site from its servers, too. still in sweden assange's service remains safe in an underground former military bunker.

    >> as long as there are no legal claims from the proper swedish authorities they will stay on.

    >> the 39-year-old australian computer hacker is wanted in sweden for accusations of rape and sexual molestation made by two women in august, detailed in this 68-page court document obtained by nbc news. assange adamantly denies the allegations and his attorney insists the investigation is dirty tricks . the swedish prosecutor disagrees.

    >> this is like every other case. we have been following the normal procedure.

    >> but assange remains defiant. during an online chat with readers of a british newspaper friday he wrote, the cablegate archive has been spread to 100,000 people in encrypted form. if something happens to us the key parts will be released automatically.

    >> also, in that online q & a assange said no matter what happens to him, lester, quote, history will win. the world will be elevated to a better place.

    >> thanks.

Photos: Wikileaks

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