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Global online collective goes to battle for WikiLeaks

In England, a 26-year-old advertising agency employee caters to multinational clients, but on the side has been communicating with a secretive band of strangers devoted to supporting WikiLeaks.

Halfway around the world, a 24-year-old in Montana had been using a Star Wars-themed website emblazoned with an image of a laser gun called a Low Orbit Ion Canon — with the goal of shutting down websites of WikiLeaks' perceived enemies.

Since releasing a vast cache of diplomatic cables this month, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks has been the focus of intense criticism: for divulging classified materials, embarrassing the U.S. government and potentially endangering lives.

But it has also engendered the frenzied support of an expanding and loosely defined global collective that seems intent on speaking out — and in some cases waging war on WikiLeaks' behalf.

The most prominent of those groups is known as Anonymous, which this past week sought to disable the websites of several U.S. companies as part of what it called Operation Payback. But even as it is scorned by U.S. officials, WikiLeaks has drawn the support of traditional civil rights organizations and advocacy groups, which see the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks as an important test of U.S. commitment to freedom of the Internet.

"This is going to be the biggest challenge to free expression and the right to publish truthful information since the Pentagon Papers," said Marcia Hofmann, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that monitors privacy and free-speech issues on the Internet. "Regardless of whether you like WikiLeaks, it's the right to publish truthful political speech that is on the line."

Several other groups have expressed dismay over recent statements by U.S. politicians suggesting that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be branded an international terrorist or perhaps even assassinated.

But it is the activities of Anonymous and its members that have caused the greatest stir online. In addition to launching "denial of service" attacks on various websites, the group's members have issued open letters in support of WikiLeaks and sought to drum up support for Assange as Time magazine's "Person of the Year." (He was in the No. 1 spot in Time's poll, with nearly 400,000 votes.)

Anonymous said it is also helping a wider audience comb through the WikiLeaks documents in a new campaign called Operation Leakspin.

'Chavez time' halted flight crew

The captain and crew of an American Airlines flight were briefly detained in 2008 after a crew member advised passengers to set their watches to "local Chavez time" upon arrival in Caracas, according to a confidential U.S. report released by WikiLeaks. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2007 created a new time zone for Venezuela, moving the clock back a half hour on a permanent basis. The U.S. Embassy report, dated Oct. 1, 2008, and released Friday, said there appeared to be a misunderstanding over one crucial word in the crew member's announcement: "local" vs. "loco" — which means crazy in Spanish. American Airlines local manager Omar Nottaro reported to the embassy that the crew member announced to passengers: "Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is ..." The remark was misunderstood and reported to authorities by a passenger. Venezuelan immigration authorities wrote in their report that the crew member said "the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women."

Associated Press

Global online collective goes to battle for WikiLeaks 12/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:40pm]
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