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Is Wikileaks the symptom or the problem?

January 20, 2011

Is Wikileaks the symptom or the problem?


This blog was originally written January 20, 2011.  This update March 11, 2011.

The United States has focused on the illegality of the Wikileaks disclosures of US State Department cables and the harm they allegedly caused.  One of the primary harms has been to expose the influence and power of the United States on European governments not to prosecute US agents for certain actions.  Additionally, when the US needs on-the-ground information more than ever.  The ambassador to India,  Gene Cretz, was forced to leave the country prior to the protests because cables from the US Embassy in Libya, published by Wikileaks, were critical of Khadafi, showed possible support for rebel forces and retaliation to the ambassador was feared.

 Wikileaks, an internet-based start-up non-profit business, began in 2006.  Despite extensive traffic to their site[1] and being recognized by the media[2]), Wikileaks is not immune to business issues that challenge all start-ups: funding, working capital, organizational and leadership issues.  In addition particular to Wikileaks, i.e., freedom of the press v. treason.

 Business Purpose and Mission.  Wikileaks began as an intermediary between whistle-blowers and the press to shield and encourage the whistle-blower to report.[3]  Supporters of WikiLeaks in the media and academia have commended it for exposing state and corporate secrets, increasing transparency, supporting freedom of the press, and enhancing democratic discourse while challenging powerful institutions.  WikiLeaks states that 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 behaviour in their governments and corporations.”  Wikileaks slogan is “We open governments”.

 Freedom of the Press.  Wikileaks practice to disclose illegal practices would seem to be a benefit.  However, in November 2010, when Wikileaks began leaking US State Department diplomatic cables, the US began to investigate Julian Assange, self described as “the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier, and all the rest”.  Many media feel that Assange is being unfairly targeted and victimized to cause Wikileaks to shut down.  Despite Wikileaks ability to verify[4] their leaks, many particularly in the US feel that Wikileaks has compromised national security, international diplomacy and want to prosecute Assange.   Although there is difficulty in prosecuting Assange because US law provides that leaking of some documents may be legally protected. [5].  Assange is seeking protection in Switzerland while some countries are contemplating potential criminal prosecution since theft of classified documents from US administration is illegal in most foreign countries.

Friendly Legal environment.   A thorough consideration and understanding of the law is necessary for Wikileaks to operate.  In Sweden, their operation is legally protected and the servers can code to protect the operation and create bulletproof hosting.[6]  Wikileaks had been shut down by Paypal and Amazon and Facebook for a period of tiime.  Facebook page was restored. 


Beginning in early 2009, Wikileaks had to shut down its website and focus its entire operation on fundraising.  In May 2010, Wikileaks did not receive a grant it had counted on for working capital[7] and had to shut down temporarily.  Through individual funders and legal support by Associated Press[8], Wikileaks has no other revenue stream than donations and grants.

 Operational Issues

Wikileaks is run by 1200 volunteer effort and an advisory board of eight people.  Some report state that as of the end of 2010, Assange and few other executives began to receive a salary.

 Leadership issues

Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg who announced in September 2010 that he was leaving Wikileaks over internal conflicts to start his own site, with a different business model.  Jacob Appelbaum did represent Wikileaks at 2010 Hackers on Planet Earth conference due to Assange and US conflict.

 Wikileaks provides an excellent practical example as to the worth and cost of Freedom of the Press?  Without Freedom of the Press how can some government practices be monitored or do threats open the door to reduced freedoms like the Patriot Act?  Do we always support Freedom of the Press or are there circumstances where we limit, what are the risks to either course of action?

Wikileaks receives multiple services like servers for free and has volunteers for most work performed?  How can Wikileaks leverage the number of viewers to its site to gain funding?

 Wikileaks, not unlike Facebook or Apple, experienced leadership issues.  What can start-ups do to prevent the operational success from being so closely linked to one leader?  How can succession planning or organizational depth be achieved?

[1] Claimed a database of more than 1.2 million documents within a year of its launch.[6]

[2] The organisation has won a number of awards, including The Economist‘s New Media Award in 2008[10] and Amnesty International‘s UK Media Award in 2009.[11][12] In 2010, the New York City Daily News listed WikiLeaks first among websites “that could totally change the news”,[13] and Julian Assange was named the Readers’ Choice for TIME’s Person of the Year in 2010.[14] (insert stats

 [4] According to statements by Assange in 2010, submitted documents are vetted by a group of five reviewers, with expertise in different fields such as language or programming, who also investigate the background of the leaker if his or her identity is known.[112] In that group, Assange has the final decision about the assessment of a document

 [6] Goodwin, Dan (21 February 2008). “Wikileaks judge gets Pirate Bay treatment”. The Register. Retrieved 7 December 2010.

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