NEW YORK – It has been 10 years since Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, the website that has gone on to serve as the world’s most prominent digital repository of leaked government information. The organization has been celebrating a decade of existence over the past week by putting on display everything that makes its brand of radical transparency so powerful and problematic.
Last Sunday, Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down from her position as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee because WikiLeaks had obtained and published a trove of embarrassing emails from the organization.
On Monday, an academic named Zeynep Tufekci wrote a scathing article about another recent WikiLeaks data dump, which included 300,000 emails related to the Turkish government. In the article — “WikiLeaks Puts Women in Turkey in Danger, for No Reason” — Tufekci argued that there was nothing newsworthy about the emails but that WikiLeaks had exposed massive databases containing private information about nearly every woman in the country.
On Tuesday, American intelligence officials said that the Russian government was almost certainly responsible for the DNC hack, and the New York Times reported that Assange had timed the release of the leak to maximize the political damage to Hillary Clinton.
On Wednesday, WikiLeaks released more information obtained from the DNC, this time a series of voice mails.
On Thursday, Edward Snowden, who exposed the National Security Agency’s surveillance program — and is a natural ally to WikiLeaks, if there has ever been one — criticized the organization for its insistence on releasing all information it receives in completely raw form.
“Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @WikiLeaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake,” Snowden said in a tweet.
WikiLeaks, never one to pull a punch, went on the offensive. In its view, the Democrats were corrupt and desperate to distract, Tufekci was a shill for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the New York Times story was “entirely false” and Snowden was maneuvering for a pardon from a future Clinton administration. WikiLeaks has also recently used its Twitter account to post a seemingly anti-Semitic remark and to pick a fight with Twitter’s chief executive officer over the company’s decision to shut down the account of a controversial right-wing commentator associated with online harassment.
So it has been a weird stretch. But WikiLeaks has always been a weird phenomenon. Its prominence grew from the ability to accept and display leaked information online without exposing its sources’ identities or succumbing to attempts by governments to censor its output. This was a seemingly simple task that required technical chops that most media companies lacked, according to Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group pushing for government transparency. “It was hugely significant, the technical capacity to enable whistleblowing and then to keep the documents in question online through distributed networks and mirroring. That continued to be WikiLeaks’ contribution,” he said.
The organization has been less sophisticated in figuring out what to do with this kind of information. There is a long-running tension between the positive impact of exposing things that powerful organizations want to keep secret and the negative implications of making private personal data public. WikiLeaks occupies the extreme end of this debate. The answer, in its eyes, is simple: the more the better.
Even people who see WikiLeaks’ broader mission — “We open governments” — as admirable have long criticized the group as reckless. The censure of the past week mirrors arguments made years ago. Steven Aftergood, the director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists, said in 2010 that the view of WikiLeaks as a champion of free speech was misguided. “The criticism of WikiLeaks has been amply borne out since then,” he said. “Fortunately, more people now see the organization for what it is.”
Even natural allies of WikiLeaks say it is hurting their cause. Howard, of the Sunlight Foundation, worries that WikiLeaks’ disregard for legitimate privacy concerns could have broader consequences for other advocates pushing for government transparency because it provides their political opponents with a bogeyman. Tufekci wrote that the Erdogan government has already stepped up its censorship campaign in Turkey.
Critics of WikiLeaks say that Russian intelligence has “weaponized” the organization with the DNC hack, essentially drawing attention to documents by leveraging WikiLeaks’ brand as a place for juicy documents. The perception is likely to lessen the organization’s impact over time, argues Paul Rosenzweig, a cybersecurity consultant who worked in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. “It’s the difference between setting yourself up to take information from whistleblowers who may have a legitimate grievance and making yourself an outlet for spies,” he said. Radical transparency loses its appeal once it becomes a tool for governments to use against one another.
WikiLeaks has to compete with other organizations for access to information. Over the last decade, other media organizations have picked up aspects of the unique appeal of its journalistic approach. The coverage of the biggest mass leak of the last year, the so-called Panama Papers, was handled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which coordinated over 100 media organizations to analyze the documents simultaneously over the course of a full year. Some of the underlying documents were released, but without personal information included.
Future leakers may prefer this approach, especially if WikiLeaks is seen as either a mouthpiece of specific governments or an irresponsible handler of leaked data. “If you’re the next Snowden, do you go there, or do you go to a media organization that has a different approach, that has the capacity and ethical standards that says potential harms are addressed?” Howard said.
This may be wishful thinking. While the criticism of WikiLeaks has increased over the past week, it is hard to argue that its impact is waning. Tufekci’s critique of the hack in Turkey was largely a complaint that WikiLeaks’ documents were unimportant, but many reporters treated them as though they were significant simply because of their source.
The DNC leak became one of the major stories of the convention. Clinton’s political opponents seemed more interested in what the emails said than the process through which they were exposed. On Thursday night, as she gave her acceptance speech in Philadelphia, a group of protesters in the audience unfurled a huge WikiLeaks banner.
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