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From Wikileaks to OpenLeaks, Via the Knight News Challenge

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, December 17 2010

Back in 2009, Daniel Domscheit-Berg applied to the Knight News Challenge in the name of Wikileaks for $532,000 to fund a project to "improve the reach, use and impact of a platform that allows whistle-blowers and journalists to anonymously post source material." At the time Domscheit-Berg was known to the world by the pseudonym "Daniel Schmitt" and made frequent appearances on behalf of Wikileaks alongside its editor-in-chief Julian Assange (including at the October 2009 Personal Democracy Forum Europe conference in Barcelona). Now, as is widely known, he and Assange have parted ways and Domscheit-Berg is part of a group organizing the launch of OpenLeaks.org, which is being described as more of a technological service provider to media organizations than as a central hub for leaks, and which is promising to roll out a detailed description of its organization and plans in January 2011.

It's illuminating to compare the 2009 Wikileaks News Challenge proposal--which made it to the final round of the prestigious program but was ultimately rejected by the Knight News Challenge judges--to Domscheit-Berg & Co's current plans for OpenLeaks. Obviously, until OpenLeaks starts functioning, we are comparing two different versions of "vaporware," but in the same way that Wikileaks itself has evolved over the last year, I think you can see a parallel evolution how Domscheit-Berg and the others in his group are thinking about how best to expand the open information model as well.

The heart of the Domscheit-Berg group's proposal (full text below) to Knight was "to create a full-fledged localized submission system" to Wikileaks. Rather than contacting Wikileaks directly, whistleblowers would be channeled through their local media. Berg wrote,

"Newspapers will be able to add a code snippet to their site to allow users to upload documents to Wikileaks. By uploading to Wikileaks through their local newspaper, both the whistleblower and the journalist will optionally be able to further communicate anonymously to ensure that the story receives full coverage and maximum depth. This is especially important for smaller publications and publications in press hostile environments that do not have the legal, financial or editorial resources of larger publications and do not have a way to anonymize their Internet traffic."

He also proposed to "translate our templates into six major world languages, localize our legal information, and increase server infrastructure around the world to ensure access in remote locales."

Domscheit-Berg argued that this proposal would benefit local investigative journalism in a variety of ways, including: "Whistleblowers will have the option of targeting their documents toward particular publications, facilitating the spread of stories of local interest. In addition, they will be able to access legal and technical information about the submission process in their own language." At the same time, he admitted that there was some potential risk to encouraging more local whistleblowing:

...localizing WikiLeaks does carry the inherent risk that people might correlate the source and the document. Because whistleblowers are easier to identify within small communities, sources may be more vulnerable with a more localized system. Our best protection against this risk is that the uploads come from WikiLeaks, not from the local site, so no one but WikiLeaks will know that the documents came from a particular local news organization. With WikiLeaks in the middle, both source and local publication are protected from risk. In turn, WikiLeaks mitigates its own risk through privacy technology, expert legal counsel, and jurisdictional diversification.

Reached by email, Domscheit-Berg tells me that OpenLeaks is definitely "rooted" in the Knight proposal, but suggests that what's coming will be much improved. He wrote, "The Knight submission was among other things what I worked on for WL [Wikileaks], together with the people that have also left WL now. Sort of our brainchild within WL. The system we applied for with Knight was a very rudimentary idea of what OL is now. What we will be implementing with OL is in this respect similar to the proposal, but way more sophisticated and with many new features."

In essence, where the Wikileaks Knight proposal would have been giving news sites a widget that would redirect leakers to the Wikileaks central hub, in keeping with Domscheit-Berg and his collaborators' vision of a more distributed, decentralized system, OpenLeaks is planning to give potential partners their own self-contained and integrated platform for managing leaks. Says Domscheit-Berg, "The submission system described on the Knight proposal would have used a button like feature that news orgs would have placed on their website that would have redirected them to the WL page." And what that would have meant is Wikileaks' editor or editors making the decisions on what was important, acting as a bottle-neck on the flow of information. Says Domscheit-Berg:

"What OL is working on is providing a dedicated submission website for each entity that we work with. Fully integrated into the web presence of the org, with the org's CI etc. So seemlessly integrating into the websites of our partners. Our partners will help building out the overall infrastructure by contributing technical resources in form of servers, bandwidth etc. Partners will not only be media, but also NGOs, labour unions etc.

This approach has a lot of advantages: Firstly the system will scale better with each new participant. Secondly, the source is the one that will have a say in who should exclusively be granted first access to material, while also ensuring that material will be distributed to others in the system after a period of exclusive access. Thirdly, we will make use of existing resources, experience, manpower etc [to] deal with submissions to more efficiently. Fourthly, we will be able to deliver information more directly to where it matters and will be used, while remaining a neutral service ourselves. And last but not least, this approach will create a large union of shared interests in the defense of the rights to run an anonymous post-drop in the digital world."

The issue of "neutrality" is clearly quite important to Domscheit-Berg. Last spring, I saw him speak at the Re:Publica conference in Berlin not long after the "Collateral Murder" video was released by Wikileaks. While I don't have the exact transcript of his remarks, I was struck by how he seemed to want to present a little distance between Wikileaks the organization, and "Collateral Murder" a journalistic endeavor that was using material released by Wikileaks but not a direct project of Wikileaks. It was as if Assange had put too much of an editorial agenda on top of Wikileaks broad goal of making information more accessible and Domscheit-Berg wanted to keep the organization on a less ideologically-controversial footing.

It's also vital to note that, according to Domscheit-Berg, OpenLeaks is going to be far less personality driven than Wikileaks. Writes Domscheit-Berg:

I am not a man leading my own project. I am not a leader, and OpenLeaks is not led by anyone. Same as the Knight proposal has been driven by various people, the OpenLeaks project is driven by different people also. Just because I am the one receiving most attention from me media, does not mean I am anymore important than anyone else. I am not into being a leader, and I don't trust the whole concept of leaders either. If you follow the debate around why we left the WL project, you will find that a strikingly important detail :)

At the time that Knight rejected the Wikileaks proposal, some--including the Wikileaks' Twitter account--cried foul. "WikiLeaks was highest rated project in the Knight challenge, strongly recommended to the board but gets no funding. Go figure," the organization tweeted. (Domscheit-Berg tells me he sent that tweet: "I had invested countless hours into the proposal, answered many questions in phone conferences and in the end no one could even tell me why we got denied.") A Knight spokesman simply said at the time the proposal had not passed the foundation staff's "due diligence" checking. Others kibitzed that the proposal just wasn't locally-oriented enough for the Knight board, which is very focused on innovative projects aimed at serving the needs of local communities.

Whatever the reasons, by rejecting Domscheit-Berg's proposal, Knight may well have done Wikileaks a favor. My sense is that the conflicting visions of Assange and Domscheit-Berg are both better served with each man operating independent of each other. The OpenLeaks model (as proposed to Knight) probably wouldn't have thrived if potential leakers were worried about their information passing through a central bottleneck. Wikileaks under Assange's leadership is now evolving more and more into a transnational media operation run by a traditional (if radical) news editor. And thanks to all the publicity generated by Wikileaks, it looks like OpenLeaks is going to be off to a flying start. The Knight board might want to consider this the best $532,000 they never spent.
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[Full disclosure: Personal Democracy Forum received a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in 2010 for 10Questions.com, and Knight provides significant funding to the Sunlight Foundation, which Andrew Rasiej and I consult for as senior technological advisers.]
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Here's the full text of Knight proposal (Old links online to its text don't appear to work, but a source was kind enough to send it to me):

Project Title: WikiLeaks full-scale localization and community expansion project

Requested amount from Knight News Challenge: 532000

Expected amount of time to complete project: 2

Total cost of project including all sources of funding: 600000

Describe your project:

Wikileaks enables whistleblowers and censored journalists to safely reveal primary-source material to the world. We have sourced thousands of stories for newspapers all over the world and helped expose both corporate and government corruption on a global scale (see attached). As a result of our efforts, we have won numerous awards, including The Economist Magazine New Media Award in 2008 and Amnesty International’s Media Award in 2009. We seek funding from the Knight News Challenge to build the mechanisms and customizations needed to transform our successful, self-funded pilot into a powerful voice for local reform. First, we will provide links to local newspapers
that publish stories based on our documents. Connecting related stories in different media, users will be able to trace a breaking story from first revelation to final commentary. Next, we will create a full-fledged localized submission system. Newspapers will be able to add a code snippet to their site to allow users to upload documents to Wikileaks. By uploading to Wikileaks through their local newspaper, both the whistleblower and the journalist will optionally be able to further communicate anonymously to ensure that the story receives full coverage and maximum depth. This is especially important for smaller publications and publications in press hostile environments that do not have the legal, financial or editorial resources of larger publications and do not have a way to anonymize their Internet traffic. We have a list of strong partners who are eager to be beta testers of this system. We will also translate our templates into six major world languages, localize our legal information, and increase server infrastructure around the world to ensure access in remote locales.

How will your project improve the way news and information are delivered to geographic communities?

Wikileaks has an established record for safe transmission and publication of high-impact source material. By furthering the development of local interfaces and enhancing local media interaction, our project will substantially improve investigative journalism in many communities around the world. Similarly localization will make it easier for readers to track the development of investigative stories and gain meaningful, actionable information out of raw data. In addition, by enhancing the connection between community news outlets and their readers, it will build bonds that will improve local media access beyond stories sourced through Wikileaks.

How is your idea innovative? (new or different from what already exists)

Wikileaks provides unprecedented safety, security, and privacy for sensitive source materials and censored journalism. This is of particular value to local newspapers and independent journalists, who lack the resources to defend their sources from legal and sometimes physical attack. Before Wikileaks, it was very difficult to forward leaked documents to investigative journalists, and nearly impossible to place them in full view of the whole world. Language localization will extend this innovation by bringing it to a larger, non-English-speaking
audience around the world. A sophisticated enhancement for the interaction between sources and journalists, readers and newspapers, will provide innovative ways for communities to report on news.

What experience do you or your organization have to successfully develop this project?

WikiLeaks is an exceptionally successful pilot that allows sources to leak confidential information while protecting their identity. We are asking Knight for first foundation funding in order to grow from a self-funded pilot to a full media operation. Because we are a non-profit organisation, we hope that the successes
of our model will be used and adapted by other media organisations. Wikileaks was founded by a team of internationally recognized technologists, legal experts, and accredited journalists. Our current staff includes well-known computer scientists and journalists, and our advisory board includes internationally noted political and technical figures. We work closely with the EFF, the ACLU, the SoPJ, and other leading 1st amendment organizations. Our pilot uses independent mechanisms to ensure that our sources are well protected. We maintain our servers at undisclosed locations, pass communication through protective jurisdictions, keep no traffic logs, and use military-grade encryption to protect sources and other confidential information. We have strong bonds with like-minded organizations such as Reporters Without Borders as well as many renowned newspapers, which can help us implement our program in local areas, provide credibility as we enter new geographic communities, and share information about local corruption, suppression of stories, and journalist harassment. In our nearly three years of operation, every source has been protected, and every attempt at censorship of our material has been defeated.

What unmet need does your proposal answer?

While the past few years have seen a catastrophic reduction in the number of employed journalists, investigative journalists have suffered the most. The high upfront cost and risks involved in investigative journalism, along with the changing dynamics of the media industry, make it difficult to publish stories of great public importance that carry a correspondingly high cost. WikiLeaks addresses these issues by providing inexpensive access to important sources while shielding them from attack. Our technical and legal expertise, tested systems, and bulletproof hosting have been used to maintain high journalistic standards at major newspapers; with greater localization, they can shed light on corruption in small communities around the world.

What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them?

The localization of WikiLeaks will consist of four phases: 1. Site redesign to fit regional needs 2. Refinement and distribution of a submission system for local media 3. Localization of site templates 4. Expansion of the Writer's Program

If granted, we will use the Knight News Challenge funds to implement these four
projects over the next 24 months. Our staff has the technical and editorial expertise to work on all four projects, but need funding in order to expand their time commitment for this major evolutionary restructuring of the project. Phase 1 and 2, the site redesign and distributed submission system, can be started immediately and would be ready for beta testing by within the first year.

Localization of templates can proceed concurrently, once there are funds for translation and localization services. Expansion of the Writer's Program consists
of increasing the availability of funds for submissions and staff time to process articles. This can also begin immediately. A more detailed project timeline can be made available on request. We will be working with various local media outfits, journalists and regional specialists in order to develop the necessary customizations of the platform and benchmark the efficiency of them during a testing phase. We currently have local media from 10 different countries lined up for this phase. This regional diversity will ensure that we can properly identify the specific requirements of each geographic community, and will provide feedback on the needs of small and local media outlets. Benchmarking the localization effort via the feedback of a cross section of media can thereby help to hone the product until ready for mass deployment. Our list of beta testing partners is available on request.

What will you have changed by the end of your project?

Once the localization project is complete, WikiLeaks will have an even greater
impact on the quality of investigative journalism in the world, particularly at smaller publications. We classify this impact in five ways: 1. Readers -- Readers
will be able to trace stories from source documents to final publication, to view
stories from a variety of publications and in various formats and to interact with
the site to comment on these stories. 2. Writers -- Journalists will have better
access to source materials that relate to their geographic area or field of interest, a wider distribution of sources, and the ability to access the site in their own linguistic and cultural context. 3. Sources -- Whistleblowers will have the option of targeting their documents toward particular publications, facilitating the spread of stories of local interest. In addition, they will be able to access legal and technical information about the submission process in their own language. 4. Publishers -- Local newspapers will be able to drive more traffic to their sites and to get scoops from sources that might not consult the main WikiLeaks site. Localization of WikiLeaks will help local media be competitive with national and international media by enabling them to provide excellent investigative articles at very low cost. 5. Community -- The WikiLeaks community brings together passionate advocates of freedom, transparency, and integrity. Localization will enable us to support these values in many geographic communities, building a culture of trust and accountability around the world. These five perspectives add up to a huge increase in the accessibility, reach, and power of WikiLeaks to improve access to quality investigative journalism around the world.

How will you measure progress and ultimately success?

We will measure progress towards our goal in three major ways: 1. Local newspapers -- We will track how many local newspapers use our distributed system, how many stories are published, and the conversion rate from uploaded documents to stories. We will carefully note these statistics from areas that previously did not have localization to gauge the success and implement improvements to this process. 2. Public -- We will track the number of page hits from various countries and in various languages, noting which stories the public views and how they relate to particular source materials. 3. Journalists -- We will track the number of stories created through our Writers Program to ensure fair access and encouragement of underreported stories.

Do you see any risk in the development of your project?

We have successfully deployed WikiLeaks technology for nearly three years. During this time, we have managed the risk of lawsuits, false documents, and misuse of our platform through a very strict yet open posting policy that allows
any document to be posted as long as it is of political, diplomatic, historical, or ethical interest. WikiLeaks has benefited from the expertise of world-class technologists, lawyers, and editors in constructing incentives for uploading valuable documents and for ensuring the privacy and security of sources.

However, there are always risks inherent in project expansion. Since this localization is based on known technologies, there is not a high degree of technical risk in developing widgets, translating to non-Western languages, or distributing on servers in more countries. However, localizing WikiLeaks does carry the inherent risk that people might correlate the source and the document.
Because whistleblowers are easier to identify within small communities, sources may be more vulnerable with a more localized system. Our best protection against this risk is that the uploads come from WikiLeaks, not from the local site, so no one but WikiLeaks will know that the documents came from a particular local news organization. With WikiLeaks in the middle, both source and local publication are protected from risk. In turn, WikiLeaks mitigates its own risk through privacy technology, expert legal counsel, and jurisdictional diversification.

What is your marketing plan? How will people learn about what you are doing?

WikiLeaks has extensive contacts within the journalism world: Our press release list has over 7,000 subscribers, including journalists and writers from every continent. We also have a high profile with the public and receive millions of unique visitors per month. When a document of particular interest is released, WikiLeaks can receive many hundreds of thousands of visitors within a 24-hour period. Localizing WikiLeaks will expand this reach in several ways. First, partnerships with local media will raise awareness of WikiLeaks among readers of local newspapers. Sources will not have to discover our site directly to learn about our service, but will see our gadget on the page of their local media outlet. Linguistic localization will allow non-English readers, writers, and sources to learn about WikiLeaks and participate in the community. Also, a more user-friendly local interface will encourage people to stay on the site and share links with others. In addition, we work to forge strong partnerships with like-minded organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch. They can help us implement our program in local areas, to provide credibility as we enter new geographic communities, and to share information about local corruption, suppression of stories, and journalist harassment. Our success so far has been based on our extraordinary database of documents of historical importance. As we look forward, we anticipate site usage will grow through word of mouth and branding on local sites rather than through explicit advertising programs.

Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?

WikiLeaks has been successfully publishing and defending sources and the press for over two and a half years without external funding. We expect to integrate the architectural results of this proposal with our main-line publishing efforts. On the expiry of the grant, the architecture will provide ongoing benefit to the public and we will preserve those primary source materials obtained into the foreseeable future.

If it is to be self-sustainable, what is the plan for making that happen?

WikiLeaks is being built towards an "investment-independent" future. Making this happen depends on the existance of a sound basis -- some of which has already been built, and some of which will be built with the grant from the Knight foundation. Ongoing infrastructure cost for the large distributed architecture WikiLeaks is operating, is and will mainly be covered by individuals donating the housing of that infrastructure. Following our recent call for help, more than 100 individuals and organizations have responded within the first month and have committed to housing such infrastructure for at least one year, in many cases longer than that or open ended. Development work and system administration can in large parts be accomplished by individuals willing to donate time to the project in order to maintain and advance its infrastructure, code base and features. WikiLeaks offers unique technical challenges. More than 400 programmers and administrators from all parts of the world have offered to help voluntarily during the last month. This general approach to maintaining the project's basic needs, independent from outside funding, ensures WikiLeaks will exist as long as the general public perceives a need for the project to exist. Funding, like that sought from Knight with this application, is necessary to build the foundation for this approach, and to carry WikiLeaks to its next evolutionary level.

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