Freedom of Information, the Wiki Way
Monday, January 15, 2007
You're a government worker in China, and you've just gotten a memo showing the true face of the regime. Without any independent media around, how do you share what you have without landing in jail or worse?
Wikileaks.org is a Web-based way for people with damning, potentially helpful or just plain embarrassing government documents to make them public without leaving fingerprints. Modeled on the participatory, online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the site is expected to go live within the next two months.
Organizer James Chen said that while its creators tried to keep the site under wraps until its launch, Google references to it have soared in recent days from about eight to more than 20,000.
"Wikileaks is becoming, as planned, although unexpectedly early, an international movement of people who facilitate ethical leaking and open government," he said.
The site, whose FAQs are written in flowery dissident-ese -- "What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, Wikileaks can broadcast to the world" -- targets regimes in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but not exclusively. It was founded and partially funded, organizers say, by dissidents, mathematicians and technologists from China, the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. The site relies on a worldwide web of volunteers and contributors to post and vet the information, and dodge any efforts to shut it down. To protect document donors and the site itself, Wikileaks uses its own coded software combined with, for the techies out there, modified versions of Freenet and PGP.
"I think it's an intriguing effort," said Steven Aftergood, an open-government advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog.
"It's significant that their emphasis seems to be on relatively closed societies rather than the U.S. or Europe, that have a rather robust media sector.
"They have the potential to make a difference," he said.
But for now, Aftergood has declined Wikileaks' invitation to serve on its advisory board.
"I want to see how they launch and what direction they go in," he said. "Indiscriminate disclosure can be as problematic as indiscriminate secrecy."
The thought that a nation's defense plans could turn up as "you've got mail" across the globe is a chilling one. So, too, is the potential for a miscreant to sow mayhem by "leaking" documents, real or fake.
"Unless there are some kinds of editorial safeguards built into the process, it can be easily sabotaged. That was the concern I was trying to raise," Aftergood said. "We'll have to see."
Wikileaks organizers say the site is self-policing. "Wikileaks will provide a forum for the entire global community to examine any document relentlessly for credibility, plausibility, veracity and falsifiability," they wrote in response to e-mailed questions. "If a document is leaked from the Chinese government, the entire Chinese dissident community can freely scrutinize and discuss it; if a document is leaked from Somalia, the entire Somali refugee community can analyze it and put it in context. And so on."
Because organizers are scattered around the globe, "In the very unlikely event that we were to face coercion to make the software censorship friendly, there are many others who will continue the work in other jurisdictions."
For a review of Wikileaks' first document, a weirdly worded memo titled "Secret Decision" said to be issued by the Somalia Islamic court system's Office of the Chief of the Imams, go to http:/