Beware the Streisand effect

Barbra Streisand is generally remembered by the pre-internet generation for her 1962 debut album song—"Happy days are here again". The post-Internet generation remember her for entirely different reasons though. In 2003, Streisand sued a photographer for displaying a picture of her house on the Internet. The publicity generated by her efforts to suppress the online publication of the picture had the unintended consequence of popularising the photograph much more than if in the first place, she had not attempted to suppress it. This phenomenon is now called the 'Streisand effect', in 'tribute' to her misjudged efforts.

This month, the Website WikiLeaks was the subject of a denial-of-service attack, i.e., an attempt to make it unavailable to Internet users. This was apparently done at the behest of the US State Department. As a consequence, Internet Service Providers refused to host the Website and payment processors like PayPal, MasterCard and Visa, declined to process online donations to the secret-spilling site. Though, the action of the US government was intended to suppress the leaks, the 'Streisand effect' made sure that the outcome was exactly the opposite. People all over the world, who hadn't even heard of the Website, were typing on their keyboards only to find a site-unavailable message, which increased their curiosity. People sympathetic to WikiLeaks, in the meantime, had voluntarily mirrored the website in order to keep it online. The entire content, with its million plus documents is now available on multiple servers, with different domain names and its fan-base has increased exponentially. The State Department tried to suppress one source. The upshot —not only has the source multiplied itself but its fan base has grown radically. Even though WikiLeaks doesn't advertise, the State Department has become its biggest advertiser.

It's difficult to fathom WikiLeaks getting so much attention but for the US State Department's attempt to stall the website. It's not as if WikiLeaks and its incriminating documents didn't exist before. It's been publishing hitherto unavailable documents from anonymous news sources for the last four years. The site was started in December 2006 by the Australian Internet activist Julian Assange as an international new media non-profit organisation. However, it hadn't gained mass popularity till recently, even though the disclosures have been as illuminating. For instance, in April this year, it posted a video from a 2007 incident in which Iraqi civilians and journalists were killed by US forces. The world, except the avid WikiLeaks fans, didn't take much notice. Even as recently as two months back, the group released a package of almost 400,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs. There was some public interest, but it dwindled soon. Last month, WikiLeaks began releasing US State Department diplomatic cables. Only when the department decided, not so sensibly, to attack the Website and, therefore, by implication thwart the freedom of all Internet users, did it start to snowball into a storm.

... contd.

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