22 augustus 2011
WikiLeaks has been around since 2006, but only since 2010 has it been so tightly identified with the abruptly famous Julian Assange. A founder and main spokesperson of the organization, the old-school Australian Internet activist has become such a public figure that it was voted Person of the Year by TIME magazine’s readers – an award the editors eventually hijacked to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Assange’s charisma as a respected hacker and civil rights advocate – in 2009 he was awarded the Amnesty International Media Award – earned him a lot of sympathy through the accusations of terrorism and sexual assault, but eventually his own strong personality clashed against his own associates. Disappointed by the way he hurriedly handled the publications of the Afghanistan and Iraq documents, possibly putting some of the informants in danger, and by his secretive and solitary decisions, some of WikiLeaks’ most valuable members resigned and parted from the organization.
In January 2011 the site’s former German spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Herbert Snorrason, an Icelandic student who had been working for it as well, launched OpenLeaks. The platform – which is not fully operational to this day – sets out to act as a community connecting whistleblowers and the press, in a secure and distributed way. If WikiLeaks had lost its openness in favor of a more editorial and centralized publishing process, OpenLeaks tries to achieve transparency by optimizing user control on the leaks submitted, putting him/her directly in contact with the desired news recipients anonymously.
Other leak-based initiatives that have sprung up in the past months are GlobaLeaks and HackerLeaks. The former has much in common with OpenLeaks: its goal is also to right the wrongs of the WikiLeaks system, by creating a more collaborative and secure platform for users to blow their whistle and making the editorial process more scalable. HackerLeaks, on the other hand, has a much more basic and vague website, which seems to follow a more secretive and centralized approach – more Assange-style. Along with these websites, it is also worth mentioning the Wall Street Journal’s very own platform, SafeHouse. In spite of its name, the service doesn’t grant the users a real anonymity – e.g. they will tell the government who the whistleblowers are, if asked – and apparently several security breaches have been discovered in its code.
If transparency of structure and member protection are the main values emerging from these examples, Assange’s heritage can also be found in other recent Internet developments. Many accused WikiLeaks of putting lives in danger, but the Australian activist has always claimed the people saved outnumbered the ones at risk. In the case of Anonymous’ spin-off LulzSec, the hacker group seems to have a similar tank-like approach to truth-spreading. Their attacks on security systems and merciless sharing of personal user information on the Web have become infamous – the Sony gaming network in particular – but according to some their apparently meaningless hits teach us all an important lesson. Internet security doesn’t exist and those who claim to provide it are hypocrites.
So, information is out there for people to take. The only problem now is: Who decides what is important? Assange asked that question and tried to answer it with WikiLeaks, a community turned editorial platform. Now the site’s heirs will provide the press with increasingly direct and targeted leaks, devolving the political sophistication to the leakers themselves. Without that central filter, actors will multiply and interact in new, unpredictable ways. It’s up to the media, now, to adapt and learn how to handle this flow, mastering those platforms and – possibly, hopefully – developing a true leak-specific journalism.