Thursday, May 20, 2010

Transparency Will Be Brought To You or How The Revolution Will Be Televised

WikiLeaks is one of the increasingly shrinking reasons I love the Internets (is that good syntax? Whatever). If you are a patron of this site, you've no doubt heard of WikiLeaks last month when it released a U.S. military video of a helicopter attack on Iraqi journalists, graphic images that drew a worldwide audience, as well as outrage.

But don't try to figure out where or who WikiLeaks is. For an organization dedicated to whistleblowing, WikiLeaks keeps a tight lid on its own affairs. Its Web site doesn't list a street address or phone number, or the names of key officers. Officially, it has no employees, headquarters or even a P.O. box.

The site has provoked official and corporate anxiety for over three years, and according to its sources, the video released last month is just a warm-up. Newly leaked material -- including what WikiLeaks officials describe as an explosive video of civilian casualties in Afghanistan -- is being prepared for release, part of a growing catalog of formerly secret documents and recordings that exceeds a million records.

WikiLeaks is tapping new technology and a growing list of financial backers (nonprofit foundations, private donations) to move closer to what the group says it has long sought to become: a global foe of excessive government secrecy and an enabler of citizen activists, journalists and others who seek to challenge governments and corporations.

In a culture in which "journalism" is defined by outrageous hyperbole spewed incessantly by pretty and not-so-pretty talking heads on both Left and Right 24-hour newschannels, WikiLeaks is the long-awaited messiah.

According to an article in the Washington Post, WikiLeaks has pioneered an approach that capitalizes on its secretive nature. Lacking a home base or traditional infrastructure, it is almost entirely virtual, relying on servers and helpers in dozens of countries. It is accessible anywhere the Internet goes, yet it is relatively immune from pressure from censors, lawyers or local governments. Its founders say those who submit material to the site typically do so anonymously.

The goal, says Daniel Schmitt, one of WikiLeaks's five core directors, is to make the organization unstoppable.

And while that kind of proclamation or language borders closely on corporate or closed society ideology, I have to trust that it is an almost necessary mission statement for a whistleblowing organization. Fight fire with fire, in a sense.

WikiLeaks's tactics have irritated governments around the world, with some striking back. China has repeatedly sought to block the site, and corporations have filed lawsuits, all of them without success.

Also watching closely are mainstream news outlets. At a time when newspapers and broadcast organizations are shedding jobs, the arrival of a global leak machine untethered by traditional journalistic rules of attribution and balance is inciting intense interest as well as apprehension. (Washington Post)

Information on WikiLeaks is vetted with the help of a network of hundreds of expert volunteers with specialties ranging from law to handwriting analysis and video encryption. To limit the possibility of threats or legal intimidation, only two members are public about their roles: Schmitt, and co-founder, Australian journalist Julian Assange. They, along with the three other founding members, draw no salaries.

WikiLeaks officials say they want to empower traditional media outlets by increasing their reach and investigative firepower at a time when many newspapers and broadcasters are slashing budgets.

"We're not there to take journalists' jobs away," Schmitt said. "On the contrary, our goal is to make mainstream journalism cheaper. We enable them to do things that no single newspaper can do by itself." (Washington Post)

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