Facebook, Twitter boot WikiLeaks supporters after Visa attack

Group that shut down MasterCard.com and PayPal forces Visa offline with a denial-of-service attack as part of its Operation Payback campaign.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read

A hacker group that calls itself "Anonymous" says it took the Visa Web site down today in retaliation for the credit card company suspending payments to the WikiLeaks site.

Earlier today, the group hit the MasterCard site with a distributed denial-of-service attack for the same reason, and it took down PayPal over the weekend. The MasterCard site was back up this afternoon.

"IT'S DOWN! KEEP FIRING!!!" the group tweeted on its Operation Payback campaign page.

Visa said yesterday that it was suspending payments to the controversial whistle-blower site, joining MasterCard and PayPal.

Operation Payback also said its page had been banned from Facebook for violating terms of use, and late afternoon, the group's Twitter account was suspended as well. Attempts to reach the group's Twitter page displayed a warning that said "Sorry, the profile you are trying to view has been suspended." A Twitter representative declined to comment on the matter. The group then created at least one new account on Twitter after being suspended.

Facebook bans pages that are "hateful" or "threatening," or which attack an individual or group, according to a warning Operation Payback posted to Twitter. A Facebook representative provided this statement: "Specifically, we're sensitive to content that includes pornography, bullying, hate speech, and threats of violence. We also prohibit the use of Facebook for unlawful activity. The goal of these policies is to strike a very delicate balance between giving people the freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints--even those that may be controversial to some--and maintaining a safe and trusted environment."

In a minor reversal, PayPal said this afternoon that it is releasing money in the WikiLeaks account to the organization but would still restrict the account from receiving any new donations. The company published a blog post seeking to clarify that the company restricted WikiLeaks' account because its Acceptable Use Policy does not allow any group to use the service, if it encourages others to engage in illegal activity.

"In 2008 and 2009, PayPal reviewed and restricted the account associated with WikiLeaks for reasons unrelated to our Acceptable Use Policy," the post said. "The account was again reviewed last week, after the U.S. Department of State publicized a letter to WikiLeaks on November 27, stating that WikiLeaks may be in possession of documents that were provided in violation of U.S. law. PayPal was not contacted by any government organization in the U.S. or abroad. We restricted the account based on our Acceptable Use Policy review."

PayPal's site was also targeted today. "We can confirm that there were attempted DDoS attacks on Paypal.com. The attack slowed the Web site itself down for a short while but did not significantly impact payments," a PayPal representative told CNET.

And in what appeared to be a "hactivist" battle between opposing sides, several Web sites (including this one) operated by the Anonymous group were offline today, possible victims of a denial-of-service attack, according to security firm Imperva.

Twitter itself could be the next target, according to a statement circulating online attributed to Anonymous and published by the Guardian UK. "We will fire at anything or anyone that tries to censor WikiLeaks, including multibillion-dollar companies such as PayPal," the statement said. "Twitter, you're next for censoring #WikiLeaks discussion. The major shitstorm has begun."

And Sarah Palin was claiming that her Web site was attacked by WikiLeaks supporters and that her credit card information was "disrupted," according to ABC.

Anonymous was not the only group taking action in support of WikiLeaks. The group known as 4Chan had taken responsibility on Tuesday for using a denial-of-service attack to shut down the sites for Swiss bank PostFinance and lawyers in Sweden prosecuting sex allegations against WikiLeaks front man Julian Assange.

Meanwhile, Icelandic hosting company DataCell said it will take legal action against Visa and MasterCard over their refusal to process donations for WikiLeaks. DataCell said it had been losing revenue as a result of those actions.

WikiLeaks has come under attack since it posted its latest release of some of 250,000 confidential U.S. diplomatic cables to the Web last month, embarrassing officials and incurring the wrath of foreign leaders. That release followed posting of cables related to the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq earlier in the year.

As U.S. politicians cry foul, and WikiLeaks' payment and infrastructure providers cut their ties to the beleaguered site, supporters have stepped up efforts to keep the site up, creating mirrors of the site and enacting revenge on those companies that turn their backs on the project.

While that war is being waged, Assange is behind bars for accusations not believed to be directly related to WikiLeaks. He was arrested yesterday in London on allegations of sexual assault in Sweden. Assange says he and the Web site are being unfairly punished for telling people what their governments are doing.

Asked for comment, Visa said in a statement today that its network that handles transaction processing was functioning normally but that its Web site was down. "Visa's corporate Web site--Visa.com--is currently experiencing heavier than normal traffic. The company is taking steps to restore the site to full operations within the next few hours." On Wednesday evening, the site again appeared accessible.

The action comes as U.S. officials weigh their legal options against WikiLeaks. A State Department representative told CNET that Assange could be in legal jeopardy for disclosing classified information because he is "not a journalist."

Updated at 6:18 p.m. PT to include a statement that Twitter might be targeted and Palin claiming that her site was attacked.

Updated at 5:43 p.m. PT to reflect attack on PayPal, new Twitter accounts appearing, and Web sites operated by Anonymous offline.

Updated at 4:48 p.m. PT to mention PayPal releasing WikiLeaks funds.

Updated at 4:27 p.m. PT to note 4Chan attacks on a Swiss bank and Swedish prosecutors.

Updated at 3:12 p.m. PT to mention that Anonymous' Operation Payback account on Twitter has been suspended.

Updated at 3 p.m. PT to include comments from Visa and Facebook.