According to Wikipedia, Wikileaks was founded in 2006. That sounds about right to me. I remember reading about it at the time and thinking it was a good idea -- a sort of investigative journalism without the journalist middleman. I checked it from time to time, but soon found that -- ironically -- all that raw info was a little hard to make use of without someone taking the time to weed out all the trivia. In short, what I'd originally thought of as direct journalism required a journalist to make sense of it.
Still, in just four short years, Wikileaks has gone from a backwater site of interest to few to an international controversy. Founder Julian Assange has become an international fugitive on Interpol's Most Wanted list, for rape charges which may be trumped up. He's a frontrunner for Time's "Person of the Year" for 2010. He's hated by some and beloved by others. To lift a line from an ad campaign, he is "The Most Interesting Man in the World."
It's probably a mistake to think of Assange in journalistic terms. A former hacker, he's more of an information extremist. After releasing video of US soldiers mistakenly gunning down journalists in Iraq, Wikileaks had to move their site to the same host that filesharing site The Pirate Bay uses -- Pirate Bay founders are likewise free-information activists. It's a strange world these people operate in, where legal and illegal aren't as important as right and wrong and there's no need to obey unjust laws. The very existence of both Wikileaks and The Pirate Bay are acts of civil disobedience and protest. And, while they're making enemies around the world, they're gaining political support and power elsewhere, mostly as part of global anti-corporate and transparency movements.
But if Assange is not a journalist, then the journalist's motto, "To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable," doesn't apply. It turns out that some information can harm more than just the powerful.
Human rights groups said Tuesday they've asked WikiLeaks to censor secret files on the Afghanistan war to protect civilians who've worked alongside the U.S. and other foreign forces from reprisals.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and three other groups have sent a series of e-mails to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange calling for the names of Afghan civilians to be removed from the 77,000 classified military documents published by the online whistle-blower last month.
Nader Nadery, of the commission, said the groups want the names removed from files already released, and from any documents disclosed in the future.
"There was no consideration about civilian lives," Nadery said. The moral of this story is beware idealists and true believers -- left, right, or middle. Someone who's absolutely convinced that their ideology is as solidly rational as science isn't likely to question their own actions. This is why libertarians give me the willies. Question your beliefs, people, and be willing to be proven wrong.
If all this background points to a cause that's hard to get you moral and ethical arms around, it can't be denied that Wikileaks is very good at what they do. Within one year of its founding, the site had more than 1.2 million documents online. While Wikileaks gets most of its press from releasing government documents, they also release internal documents from corporations. And a good chunk of that information is about to hit the fan.
In an interview with Forbes' Andy Greenberg, Assange says "About fifty percent" of the documents the site has are from the private sector and that he plans a "megaleak" of these corporate documents. These will be related to banking -- specifically, one bank unnamed in the interview. Assange says "it could take down a bank or two."
Asked when this megaleak would happen, Assange told Greenberg, "Early next year. I won't say more."
But an eagle-eyed Rick Rothacker, writing for the Charlotte Observer, points out that Assange has already said more. Rothacker reports that Assange "told Computerworld in October 2009 that his organization was 'sitting on' five gigabytes of information from a Bank of America executive's hard drive." Five gigs of documents would definitely qualify as "mega." And, given the site's history, that single hard drive is probably not their only source. Some are already talking about a corporate scandal on the scale of Enron.
For myself, I think Wikileaks performs a valuable service and, if the document dump is as harmful to BoA (or whichever bank) as people seem to expect, I also think that information will back up my argument.
But I also wish that Assange's organization exercised a little more caution in the information they leak out. While the word "censorship" is practically heretical to their ideology, it turns out that some censorship is not only wise, but humane.
As I said, it's a cause that's hard to get your moral and ethical arms around. But if the megaleak is what many believe it is, we may wind up being glad to have that dilemma.
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