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As WikiLeaks Struggles, Copycats Die But Online Whistle-Blowing Thrives

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, May 29 2012

Julian Assange at PDF 2010 (with Daniel Ellsberg and Micah Sifry in foreground). Photo by JD Lasica.

It's been months since WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, has posted anything other than appeals for support for its embattled founder Julian Assange. Weakened by internal dissension with Assange's imperious management (starting in mid-2010) , hampered since December 2010 by an extra-legal blockade by credit card companies that have hurt its funding, and distracted and drained by Assange's extended legal battle against his extradition to Sweden, WikiLeaks is a long cry from the heady months when it rattled Washington with the release of Afghanistan and Iraq war records and State Department cables and helped set off the uprisings in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East. Though it's in the news again today because of the British Supreme Court's decision to allow Assange to be extradited to Sweden, even that ruling won't end the legal wrangle keeping Assange under house arrest outside of London.

But if WikiLeaks is stuck in quicksand, wrestling with circumstances at least partially of its founder's own making, what about other whistleblowing websites?

On the one hand, most of the copy-cat sites that sprang into existence back in late 2010 and early 2011 with some kind of -Leaks suffix in their name have gone nowhere. BalkanLeaks.eu has mainly just published some of the State Department cables obtained first by WikiLeaks plus a handful of locally sourced materials. Indoleaks, dedicated to Indonesia, has basically been dormant since one round of document dumps in late 2010. In early 2011, Brusselsleaks kept tweeting that it was not far from being launched, and then, silence (the site is down). Tradeleaks, which proposed to make it easier for consumers to expose bad corporate behavior, is full of "cheap authentic Louis Vuitton" spam. Greenleaks.org and Greenleaks.com, two competing bids for environmentalists' attention, are both kaput.

The only WikiLeaks-inspired site launched in 2010-11 that is still genuinely going strong that I know of is Rospil.info, a Russian anti-corruption site founded by crusading blogger Alexei Navalny. It would appear that merely putting up a site to invite leaks from anonymous sources isn't enough to generate much engagement--an engine (like a Navalny) is needed.

But if WikiLeaks and most of its would-be progeny are floundering, using the web to shine light on leaked documents exposing hidden facts is alive and well. Look no further than ALECexposed, a site set up by the Center for Media and Democracy to house and explain some 800 draft bills that were leaked to its executive director Lisa Graves from inside the American Legislative Exchange Council. For years, ALEC had worked quietly behind the scenes, connecting legislators and corporate lobbyists and producing model legislation designed to push a "pro-business" agenda through state capitols and Congress.

"These were bills that were voted on by corporate lobbyists and legislators voting as equals," Graves told me, "and then the politicians took those bills back to the states or Congress, without any acknowledgment that they had been 'prevoted' on."

Unlike WikiLeaks, CMD did not post the raw text of the ALEC model bills on their website. "I was determined that we would help analyze each one and put it into context," Graves said. As a result, when ALECexposed first went live, back on July 13, 2011, it got a big wave of attention. Also, by putting the material on a searchable wiki, CMD made it easier for local watchdogs to tailor their reporting and coverage around documents pertaining to their own state, with everyone using the hashtag #alecexposed to aggregate attention.

And more recently, after Graves connected the dots between Florida's "stand your ground" law--which was cited by local authorities in their initial decision to not charge George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing--and similar ALEC-inspired statutes in other states, CMD's efforts have had an undeniable impact. Nearly twenty corporations have decided to leave ALEC in response to public protest, along with 50 state legislators.

But what about OpenLeaks, the site that Daniel Domscheit-Berg--Assange's longtime co-conspirator and then beet noire--has been talking about since late 2010 as a neutral portal for receiving and sharing anonymously leaked material? Recall that when he and Assange parted ways, WikiLeaks also lost the support of a mysterious coder known as "The Architect," and even more crucially, it lost its secure portal for receiving leaks anonymously.

Back in the summer of 2011, it looked like OpenLeaks too would be still-born after Domscheit-Berg was kicked out of the Chaos Computer Club just as he was asking members of that German hacker collective to help poke holes in a very early version of the site. Now, according to an entertaining report by Maria Bustillo in The Awl, it looks as though OpenLeaks is still alive and kicking, though not yet fully operational.

Domscheit-Berg has been welcomed back into the CCC, and he told Bustillo that work continues on building out a secure platform that would enable whistleblowers to anonymously hand material to designated journalistic enterprises. "There is no sponsor, there are no foundations, no corporations, there are no people paying us for what we are doing. This is all just 100% privately funded by me and the others," he told her. "This is good because right now we are independent and there's no one that can tell us that we need to hurry up a little bit more." He also told her that OpenLeaks is welcoming potential media partners, though they will have to travel to Germany to explore the relationship in person.

Whatever happens to OpenLeaks, and for that matter WikiLeaks, it's still way too soon to draw any final conclusions about the potential for the web to enhance the traditional methods that journalists and insiders have used to blow the whistle on official wrongdoing. Much hard news is still going to be the product of the time-consuming human development of human sources. Sometimes, as in the case of ALECexposed, the web will work as a force-multiplier. And maybe, if and when OpenLeaks starts working, we'll have a real test of the question: was WikiLeaks a one-off, or a harbinger of things to come.

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