Planning a better whistleblowers' site: a review of Domscheit-Berg's book "Inside WikiLeaks"

Amidst all the arguments about whether WikiLeaks is good, bad,
sustainable, replicable, or just plain inevitable, I’ve been
frustrated by two gaps in the discussion. First, commentators tend to
treat WikiLeaks as some kind of pure emanation of the Internet,
ignoring the vast legal, financial, media, and other systems that make
it possible. Second, they either praise or criticize its mission, but
rarely ask how it could be improved.

For these reasons, I find Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s new book, Inside
WikiLeaks
, an important contribution to current politics.
Written by one of the key leaders of the WikiLeaks project during its
startling rise to fame, this book advances our understanding of
WikiLeaks in the context of global society, and proposes a new site
named OpenLeaks with a similar
mission but a radically different way of getting there. The book
displays these treasures in an eminently enjoyable setting with a
great story involving unforgettable characters and a passionately
confessional look at Domscheit-Berg’s own motivations.

Although I still crave more background on how WikiLeaks operated
during the author’s tenure there, I understand that there are many
things he can’t talk about, and others that may be arbitrary
historical details with little relevance for those who want to advance
human freedom in other settings. This article is not a summary of the
book, but an examination of a few issues it illuminates that I
consider of paramount importance.

The systems that make WikiLeaks run

Nobody, not even the immensely energetic Julian Assange, could create
a site with WikiLeaks’ achievement without support from numerous other
systems. One of the subtexts I found reading Inside
WikiLeaks
is the complexity of the interactions between Assange
and his environment. I’ll list here all the major support systems I
found; probably other people could identify even more.

Whistleblowers

Although this primary force behind WikiLeaks would seem almost too
obvious to mention, it’s disturbing how little support exists for
those who consider becoming whistleblowers. WikiLeaks claims not to
solicit leaks–although its very existence, of course, is taken as a
provocation by its detractors–but Domscheit-Berg points out that it
could do more to protect its sources.

During his time there, Domscheit-Berg claims they posted many warnings
that sources should avoid posting any information that could be used
to trace them. But what about an informational service that
objectively reports the rights and risks of whistleblowing in
different jurisdictions? I am reminded of a project at Harvard
University, the Online Media Legal
Network
, that offers advice to journalists in recognition of our
new age where hundreds of thousands of amateurs take on journalism
part-time. Whistleblowers don’t dare form communities in the same way
as journalists do, but they need support and advice.

Redactors

Because fake documents sometimes get uploaded, and because many
documents could put lives at risk if they were published uncut,
redactors are necessary both to judge the authenticity of documents
and to black out sensitive personal information. Inside
WikiLeaks
offers little detail in this area, but shows that the
leaders were very conscious of its importance.

Regarding authenticity, Domscheit-Berg indicates that efforts were
somewhat haphazard and inadequate, although they didn’t lead to
disaster. First, he mentions textual stylistic analysis as a way to
determine that the same person wrote two unrelated documents. But his
main passage on the subject is not reassuring:

Julian and I usually checked whether documents had been manipulated
technologically and did a few Google searches to see whether they
struck us as genuine. We could only hope that things would turn out
all right. Apparently we developed a pretty good sense for what was
authentic and what wasn’t; at least as far as I know, we didn’t make
any major mistakes. But we could have. (p. 217)

To black out personally identifying information on the Afghan war
leaks, they used a form of crowdsourcing.

Every volunteer had access to a small package of work via the Web
front end and only received an excerpt of the complete data. Hundreds
of volunteers could view and edit the documents at the same time.
There were at least two editors per document, and every change was
protocolled. (p. 191)

Without vetting or training, I don’t see how the volunteers could do a
good job, but the work was completed and WikiLeaks emerged
clean-handed from accusations that it was putting informants at risk.
Experts were sometimes brought in too: the major media outlets who had
early access to the work were asked for help, and in the Afghan case,
even a US Ambassador (who refused).

One more form of redaction became critical once WikiLeaks became well
known: deciding where to put their limited resources when they
couldn’t find time to release all the worthy documents that turned up
on their servers. The choices they made–often driven by the
preferences of their media partners or by marketing decisions about
how to cause the biggest stir–became a central theme of Inside
WikiLeaks
, and Domscheit-Berg’s dissatisfaction with many of
Assange’s choices led to the proposed crowdsourced approach discussed
later in this article.

Media Outlets

Nothing challenges the premise of open information as the progenitor
of freedom and citizen involvement more than the experiences of the
WikiLeaks leaders trying to inflect public action with their leaks.
Essentially, nobody noticed or cared about even the most incendiary
leaks unless major media outlets (the New York Times the
British Guardian, the German Spiegel) played them
up.

This book, therefore, could well be cited by proponents of journalism
as evidence for the critical role of professional news outlets.
WikiLeaks consciously formed intensely symbiotic relationships with
the journalists they worked with, and Domscheit-Berg rues the extent
to which–in his view–the newspapers gained the upper hand and
started to drive the agenda.

Professional journalists were key not only to getting attention, but
to making sense of many documents. The most shocking WikiLeaks
revelation, a video of American soldiers cavalierly shooting Iraqi
civilians, was given some pointed editing and subtitles and released
under the title Collateral Murder in order to achieve its
effect. The organization was widely criticized in this case for
dropping its stance of neutrality. Yet the video would not been
understood by so many viewers without the doctoring.

It’s hard for outsiders to know what a document is talking about,
particularly because authors who recognize they are doing something
wrong like to couch their descriptions in jargon, acronyms,
euphemisms, and other obfuscation. Even without these barriers,
citizen journalists can easily misinterpret a document or can
deliberately distort its meaning in describing it–and other outsiders
have just as much trouble recognizing the distortions as understanding
the originals. So WikiLeaks is not an effective force on its own.
Domscheit-Berg incorporates this lesson into his OpenLeaks proposal.

Financial Institutions

WikiLeaks is intricately interwoven with the international system for
transferring and verifying payments. It depends on donations that must
pass through banks and sites such as PayPal. So far, the leaders of
WikiLeaks have seemed successful in diversifying their sources of
income so that punitive actions by a number of financial institutions
have failed to shut it down.

Non-Governmental Organizations

NGOs were major funders of WikiLeaks, but they have a more subtle role
to play. In the first couple years, before the media took notice of
WikiLeaks, Assange visited numerous conferences to recruit funds,
motivate volunteers, and promote the idea of whistleblowing on his
site.

Law Enforcement

People who do the things done by Assange and Domscheit-Berg develop
enemies, and although Domscheit-Berg’s anecdotes make Assange look
paranoid, they could definitely be in physical danger. While Assange
lashes out at the Swedish authorities and the hidden forces he claims
lay behind the rape charges, police and courts are also present every
day to keep Assange safe from retaliation. True, the legal system
dropped the ball when it should have forced institutions such as Bank
of America, PayPal, and Amazon.com to honor their contracts with
WikiLeaks. But the system has been pretty damn good to WikiLeaks
overall. The single lawsuit brought against it failed, a judge’s
initial take-down order being quickly reversed (albeit after public protests).

Technologists

There are many other people we could mention as important to
WikiLeaks–the general public with its sympathies, and ultimately the
keepers of the secrets whose plots make WikiLeaks necessary–but most
of all we must acknowledge the computer experts who created the
networks and applications used by WikiLeaks. Domscheit-Berg’s stories
show clearly that WikiLeaks grew out of the cypherpunk and hacker
communities whose political proclivities focused (ironically) on
preserving privacy. WikiLeaks was not the brainchild of political
scientists but of computer programmers.

In the time Domscheit-Berg spent at WikiLeaks, it grew from a single
underpowered server to a secret network of dedicated computers
scattered throughout various countries. He portrays the later use of
Amazon.com’s cloud service–which obviously backfired when Amazon
kicked them off–as a poor choice, probably necessitated by a lack of
technical knowledge within the organization.

And behind the TORs and other secure systems that WikiLeaks uses to
gather source material lies the general-purpose Internet, based on a
radical architecture of distribution that allows each system to
blindly and trustingly forward data from other systems. Anonymity is
an emergent property in a layered network where each component minds
its own business and serves the larger community.

A better whistleblower site

WikiLeaks was an exhausting but continually educational experience for
Domscheit-Berg. His new project tries to achieve the goals for which
he joined WikiLeaks in a manner that more cleverly exploits mass
participation and crowdsourcing. It’s a humbler system that may fix
some problems of WikiLeaks, and will certainly lead to a new wave of
the sort of lessons that can be derived only by trying things out in
real life.

OpenLeaks will not be a publisher, and therefore won’t make choices
about what to publish. Instead, it will simply connect sources with
potential publishers. News outlets, human rights organizations, and
all kinds of other respected organizations can register with OpenLeaks
to receive content. Sources can then choose which organizations
receive their leaks. Sources may also be offered the option to publish
the material for all to see, if the chosen organizations fail to
pursue it.

Much redaction thus gets offloaded to the worldwide community of
concerned organizations. In this way, Domscheit-Berg plans to
eliminate the potential conflicts of interest and difficult choices
that come up when a small group of leaders have to decide where to
dedicate their time.

By staying out of the limelight, Domscheit-Berg hopes to avoid
attracting a leader with the weaknesses he finds in Assange:
arrogance, dictatorial tendencies, and capricious decision-making. A
consistent anarchist, Domscheit-Berg yearns for a managerial
organization that lets everyone work by consensus and avoid elevating
one leader. He states his ideals at the very beginning of the book:

In the world we [Assange and Domscheit-Berg] dreamed of, there would
be no more bosses or hierarchies, and no one could achieve power by
withholding from the others the knowledge needed to act as an equal
player. (p. 4)

I don’t believe this is possible, but I’m glad there are people like
Assange and Domscheit-Berg who do. I recommend this book for the
insights I’ve summarized here, as well as for some fascinating
portraits of Assange and other actors in the WikiLeaks story,
including Domscheit-Berg himself.

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  • http://gondwanaland.com/mlog/ Mike Linksvayer

    Possible in an absolute sense, no, but it’s a great dream to have and to work toward.

    Thanks for this thoughtful review, moved “Inside WikiLeaks” up the reading queue.

  • http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog Paul Jones

    I agree with Mike. The idea is to move toward more openness by acquiring and building tools and methods that produce a new kind of accountability.
    Is that possible in a world in which there continues to be more centralized ownership of media and more protected ways for money and influence to manage political decisions?
    We’ll be watching that in several countries including the US.
    And like Mike, I’ve moved the book up my to read list.