As WikiLeaks continues to release classified diplomatic cables, and fights to remain online and solvent, it’s becoming increasingly clear what’s happening has less to do with WikiLeaks itself, and more to do with what seems to be a new form of media emerging: not a news or journalism entity specifically, but a kind of media middleman that exposes secret or undiscovered information, which can then become a source of news. Could WikiLeaks — and similar efforts it appears to be spawning — become a crucial new part of the digital media ecosystem?
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen WikiLeaks attacked by the U.S. government — now apparently considering espionage charges against leader Julian Assange for publishing the cables — and shut down by companies such as PayPal and Amazon (which seems to see no irony in selling a book including excerpts from WikiLeaks cables). Both of those companies have in turn come under attack by Anonymous, a rogue group of hackers who targeted their websites as part of what the group called Operation Payback, although the group appears to be moving away from denial-of-service attacks to less destructive attention-getting strategies.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks has been making itself so distributed — by setting up over a thousand mirror sites through which it can publish documents automatically, as well as moving servers to several different hosts — that it seems almost unassailable, even if Assange is found guilty of something. The WikiLeaks founder has said that in addition to the mirror sites, BitTorrent archives of the cables have been provided to 10,000 sources who could continue to publish them even if WikiLeaks was somehow taken offline.
It’s not just WikiLeaks any more: A new spin-off group called OpenLeaks, formed in part by a splinter faction from within WikiLeaks, says it’s launching a new service with much the same mandate as its predecessor — to make documents public whether governments and companies want them to be or not — although it plans to be just a distribution point rather than a publisher itself. Another group calling itself BrusselsLeaks is apparently also looking to create the kind of document clearinghouse that WikiLeaks has set up, but it will be focused on information about the European Union.
As political analyst Evgeny Morozov notes in a piece written for the New York Times, and in a summary of that piece on his blog at Foreign Policy magazine, WikiLeaks has come to serve as a kind of middleman for media outlets such as the NYT and The Guardian. Although these entities have investigative teams, they can’t possibly find everything, and there is so much more information out there to comb through. What agencies such as WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks could provide is a single source for such documents, as well as a way of publicizing that these secrets have been revealed, something that WikiLeaks has done very well.
Do newspapers and other media need WikiLeaks? Some would argue that the sources who went to Assange could just as easily have gone to the NYT or The Guardian directly. So why didn’t they? Possibly because they wanted the information to be spread more widely than just one media outlet, or were worried that one newspaper might not report on the cables properly if they were the only ones with that information. In a sense, as my former colleague Doug Saunders — the European bureau chief for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail — has noted, WikiLeaks is not that different from the brown envelope that the leaker behind the Watergate scandal delivered documents in.
In this era of real-time publishing and the ubiquitous web, however, the power of that brown envelope has been amplified a thousandfold, and its reach is far broader than was ever possible before — and that changes the game entirely.
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