Wikileaks: cat among pigeons

October 28, 2010


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A couple of days ago, I finished a post on Wikileaks by stating that the media organisation that refuses to play by everybody else’s rules is still learning its own game. I promised you more on that and here it is.

One of the reasons Wikileaks has attracted such a strong reaction from the Pentagon and others is precisely because it doesn’t play by a variety of media ‘rules’.

Far more subtle pressure can be placed on traditional media organisations, which have obvious offices with a registered address under a specific legal jurisdiction, journalists and editors who are easily contactable, and established guidelines and working practices (however praiseworthy or dubious).

Wikileaks, with just a four year publishing history, is much more of an unknown quantity spread across the globe to avoid legal censure.  Its servers are apparently safely stored in a Cold War nuclear bunker in Sweden and it has been pressing the Icelandic government to create a legal environment that will protect whistleblowers.

Operating in a grey area somewhere between the spheres of media and activism, Wikileaks is also capitalising on a window of opportunity. The organisation’s ability to consistently publish secret documents is based on the vulnerability of institutional record-keeping to the potential for individuals to transmit vast quantities of digital information with relative ease.

The bureaucratic organisations that Wikileaks seeks to expose have failed to address a number of the weaknesses made possible by the digital era. Existing governmental controls are demonstrably inadequate.

The point was rammed home at the Frontline Club on Monday by Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, when he discussed the Pentagon’s attempts to frame Wikileaks’ actions as a breach of the U.S. Espionage Act.

In order to do so, the U.S. military demanded that Wikileaks “return” documents as though they were bits of paper.

Assange described a light-hearted conversation in a Wikileaks office in which the team wondered if they could fulfil that demand simply by sending the Pentagon an email with the documents attached.

While one might hope that Wikileaks would force the powerful to be more transparent and accountable, a clampdown by the Pentagon is probably more likely.

Procedural changes at the Pentagon are inevitable, pressure for legal reform is not unlikely and perhaps they’ll even be learning from Wikileaks – an organisation that seems to know a thing or two about information security and secrecy.

In the meantime, Wikileaks will be kept under pressure. An alleged source of the Afghan war log leaks, Bradley Manning, has been made into a high profile scapegoat and Assange described the last three months as the most difficult for Wikileaks since the organisation began.