WikiLeaks allows information to be published anonymously

Kathie Zipp

Site protects whistle-blowers from backlash

The protocol of the U.S. Army at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is something the public has little chance of seeing. But Wikipedia’s whistle-blower site, WikiLeaks, has changed that.

An anonymous source published the 238-page document, “Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures” in November 2007 on the WikiLeaks Web site. Immediately the public had unclassified information at its fingertips, including schematics of the camp, instructions on how to psychologically manipulate prisoners, how to process new detainees and how to reward them with extra toilet paper.

Since its launch, the site has released a number of significant documents that have become front-page news items, ranging from documentation of equipment expenditures and holdings in the Afghanistan war to corruption in Kenya.

“It’s a wonderful idea for whistle-blowers who have an international venue for communicating things that otherwise people would have a hard time getting out to the mass audience,” said Mark Goodman, professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s definitely something that will inevitably grow.” “publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive governmental, corporate or religious documents, while attempting to preserve the anonymity and untraceability of its contributors.”

Junior history major Lael DeMott said this is what he thinks makes the site important.

“It allows the release of information that the media doesn’t have,” he said. “It allows the transparency of government actions and makes public documents public. That’s how it should be.”

The site, launched in December 2006, has grown to more than 1.2 million documents. Goodman, an expert on journalism law, calls the development fascinating and is not surprised by the growth.

At first, the site operated much like Wikipedia. Anyone could post to or edit it. But WikiLeaks abandoned the Wiki model after early allegations that it promoted “automated or indiscriminate publication of confidential records.”

Now an internal review process regulates submissions to keep the “completely anonymous” system from being flooded with false documents, pornography and spam. Users are able to comment on all documents, analyze them and identify false material.

Goodman said because the Internet is available to people all over the world, it will become a good outlet for people who don’t live under governments that value free speech.

“We have a very free press,” he said. “This site makes a dramatic difference in countries where press freedom isn’t as valued. It gives them an anonymous means of getting the information out.”

One example is China, whose government tries to censor every Web site with WikiLeaks in its URL. Once the document is posted, however, hundreds of other sites not associated with WikiLeaks can post it.

“It poses the question, ‘Can courts really cut off access to information any more?'” he said. “Once posted, the information on a site can be mirrored on other sites. The ability of the government to close down every site containing that material is dramatically limited.”

WikiLeaks itself is not responsible for what others have posted on it. Leakers might still be violating release of information rules within their companies, though Goodman said releasing important information through illegal means is nothing new.

“We have a long history in this country of leaking,” he said. “What WikiLeaks does is give context even if it’s against the law to be released, and the company has a legal claim against the leaker.”

The site was first developed by Chinese dissidents, journalists and startup company technologists from the U.S., Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Their stated goal is to ensure that whistle-blowers and journalists are not thrown into jail for e-mailing sensitive or classified documents.

WikiLeaks states its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.”

Contact science and technology reporter Kathie Zipp at [email protected].