When online troublemaker Julian Assange co-founded Wikileaks, the net's premiere document-leaking site last year, some were skeptical that the service would produce anything of interest.
Now, after 18 months of publishing government, industry and military secrets that have sparked international scandals, led to takedown threats and briefly gotten the site banned in the United States, Assange says Wikileaks is just getting started changing the world.
"In every negotiation, in every planning meeting and in every workplace dispute, a perception is slowly forming that the public interest may have a silent advocate in the room," Assange writes.
Launched in January 2007, Wikileaks was conceived as a safe place for whistle-blowers to reveal their secrets to the world. Today, nobody doubts that the site has had an enormous impact -- much of it good. But critics charge that Wikileaks' hands-off policy of publishing nearly everything that comes its way has turned the site into a free-for-all. The U.S. military has decried Wikileaks as "irresponsible" for publishing classified information, and even critics of government secrecy have railed against the site's publication of secrets that have no obvious news value, and potentially harm some individuals' privacy.
"That is a threat to the fabric of our society, which is based on the rule of law, and they are saying there is no law," says Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy Project.
The site started off with a bang. It's first disclosure -- published even before its official launch -- was a suppressed report on the looting of the African nation of Kenya by former president Daniel Arap Moi, a leak that led to an upset in Kenya's presidential election.
Then in November 2007, Wikileaks published never-before-seen operating manuals for the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, revealing that the United States had a policy for hiding some detainees from the International Red Cross, and used dogs to intimidate prisoners. The same month, the site published lists of U.S. munitions in Iraq, including stores of banned chemical weapons. Documents leaked from the Swiss bank Julius Baer in January strongly hinted that some customers were engaged in widespread money laundering.
In February, the site published the Pentagon's 2005 rules of engagement for troops in Iraq, revealing that troops were authorized to pursue former officials in Saddam Hussein's government, as well as terrorists, into neighboring Iran and Syria. The document was classified "secret", meaning that in the eyes of the military, its release could be expected to cause "serious damage" to U.S. national security.
The world's governments and press have taken notice. The New York Times reported on the rules of engagement leak, and the Iranian government held a press conference to warn the United States about crossing its border. The Washington Post reported on the Guantanamo documents, forcing the Pentagon to respond.
More controversially, the site has begun posting confidential documents from the secretive and litigious Church of Scientology, and from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Those leaks demonstrate that the site has veered from its mission to expose the secrets of repressive governments, says Aftergood, treading instead on the dangerous ground of religious persecution.
"They are close to becoming the oppressors that they claim to oppose," Aftergood says. "People ought to be free to practice their religious beliefs no matter how peculiar they are, in privacy and without harassment, and the Wikileaks folks seem not to understand that."
"They think all secrecy is an evil to be opposed and that is just a juvenile point of view," he adds.
Other Wikileaks documents sometimes seem to lack any news value at all. For instance, Wikileaks critics questioned why a site intended to bring sunshine to non-democratic countries published an earlier version of the movie script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Others questioned Wikileaks' decision to publish a tax bill for Wesley Snipes that included his Social Security number.
Wikileaks also published a classified operating manual for the U.S. military's guided bombs known as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAM that included information on its known weaknesses. No news organizations picked up on the manual, but Wikileaks' watchers certainly took notice of its publication. Aftergood, for one, found it irresponsible.
"Are there military technologies that warrant protection against disclosure? My view is, and the Federation of American Scientists' view is, obviously yes, and there are things we withhold even though they are technically unclassified," Aftergood says. "I think they display atrocious editorial judgment."
Assange, one of the site's original creators, is an Australian-born hacker and writer with a social conscience, who now lives in East Africa. Among other achievements, he co-invented Rubberhose deniable encryption, which would let a dissident being tortured reveal one key to unlock a hard drive, while not giving away that there was a second or third password-locked folder of information.
The coder bristles at the criticism of Wikileaks standards. The JDAM document, he says, is a perfect example of a leak that's entirely consistent with Wikileaks' ethic, which owes no allegiance to any government or group.
"Many countries face the risk of being attacked by JDAM guide bombs should they not toe U.S. foreign policy lines, so its specific capabilities are of intense interest to a knowledgeable audience," Assange says. "If governments do not like morally outraged soldiers leaking the specifications to their weapons systems, perhaps they should be more selective about who they kill with them."
"Similarly if rebel groups like the FARC would like sources to stop providing us with their internal documents, they would be well advised to release their hostages," he says.
In February a military spokesman lambasted Wikileaks' release of the Iraq rules of engagement in a statement to The New York Times, saying "the deliberate release of what Wikileaks believes to be a classified document is irresponsible and, if valid, could put U.S. military personnel at risk."
The Pentagon isn't the only group with no love of Wikileaks. In January, Wikileaks published secret banking documents from the Cayman Islands branch of the Swiss private bank Julius Baer, despite not being certain of their veracity. The documents allegedly show the bank knew about, and even aided, money laundering. The bank sued Wikileaks in a federal court in California, briefly convincing a judge to order Wikileaks' domain registrar to de-list the site from web.
Predictably, the censorship attempt backfired as netizens posted the IP address of Wikileaks, whose servers were unaffected. Press groups, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, which brought more attention to Wikileaks than any of its previous -- and more spectacular -- document leaks.
The judge in the case soon reversed himself, and Julius Baer, which declined to comment on Wikileaks, dropped the suit, realizing that the attempt to censor brought more attention to the documents than if they had just ignored it.
Wikileaks's core strength -- its distributed and seemingly phantom-like presence on the net -- has yet to be tested legally or technically. The domain name owner lives in Kenya and purposely doesn't know much about Wikileaks. The site, which looks to be hosted from a server in Sweden, has multiple mirrors around the world.
One of Wikileaks' advisers, security expert Ben Laurie, doesn't even know who runs the site -- other than Assange -- or where the servers are.
That secrecy lets Wikileaks stay online even when one of its domain names is shut down. Similarly, it has thwarted efforts by the Church of Scientology to have a document removed using U.S. copyright law.
Wikileaks' assertion of freedom from the world's laws is reminiscent of the early days of net rhetoric -- much of which has fallen away as governments learn to use laws and filters to impose at least some national standards on the net.
For instance, in 2000, France succeeded in forcing Yahoo to ban Nazi paraphernalia auctions. And repressive regimes like China have used sophisticated tools and economic clout to censor the net.
If Assange is unflustered by criticism of Wikileaks, he acknowledges that one of its founding ideas has not panned out. As conceived, Wikileaks would employ an army of volunteers to collaboratively evaluate the documents it leaks -- that's the "wiki" in Wikileaks. But despite the site's growing reputation and its emergence as a cause celebre on the net, nobody's shown much interest in poring over pages of documents that reveal the world's secret workings.
Instead that work of vetting and analyzing documents has fallen to academics, journalists and Wikileaks' own staff, including Assange. Now Wikileaks is planning to drop the wiki model entirely. In the future, it plans to pre-release selected documents to investigative journalists, then publish them once a story appears. That gives the favored reporters time to analyze and verify documents without fear of being scooped.
Assange is even toying with the idea of making his site a subscription service that pre-releases secret documents to paying reporters. The reporters would have the option of writing about a given leak, or passing on it and getting another, if the reporter doesn't find it useful.
The change is partly due to economics, he says. Academics and journalists are among the few who have time to spend poring over documents. It's also partly because people online seem more inclined to comment on something that's already been analyzed, than analyze it themselves, says Assange.
That change pleases Aftergood.
"Working reporters can use all the help and sources they can get, and Wikileaks does have a track record of getting their hands on documents that other people haven't," Aftergood says. "It also has the potential to introduce another layer of editorial judgment and I believe in editorial judgment on matters of confidentiality."
Assange says he's no enemy of the editorial process -- he is, in fact, a big fan of journalism. Indeed, he points to the ever-present news of layoffs at newspapers, and the lack of institutional support or funding for investigative journalism, as the reason Wikileaks needs to exist. With Wikileaks' help, journalists can change the world, he says.
"It is time journalists and publishers starting actually engaging in 'fearless journalism' rather than simply placing the words on their mastheads," Assange says. "It is time activists serious about their mission used every technical and legal ploy they can to further it." Quoting Filipino political thinker Walden Bello, Assange says "it is time for less civil society and more civil disobedience."
"Imagine a world where companies and government must keep the public, or their employees, or both, happy with their plans and behavior," Assange says. "That is the world we are striving to create."
While the wiki-portion of Wikileaks has proven a flop, from a purely economic standpoint, Wikileaks works, even if the wiki part did not, according to Assange.
"Based on the last 12 months, we catalyzed one mainstream press report or re-report per $40 of funding, which in turn has lead to concrete changes across the world that affect the lives of millions."