Wikileaks gives an online home to repressed dissidents

Wikipedia-inspired service aims to allow foreign dissidents to anonymously distribute and comment on government documents. The focus is on Asia and former Soviet countries, but those in the West can use it too.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Irony is such sweet sorrow. WikiLeaks.org was not supposed to go public yet. The site, inspired by Wikipedia, aims to be an anonymous way for people in censored countries to post government documents without getting picked up by the secret police.

But someone leaked its existence in a blog post of a few words. Now Google reports 249,000 results on the term "wikileaks." And The Washington Post today outs the site into the mainstream.

"Wikileaks is becoming, as planned, although unexpectedly early, an international movement of people who facilitate ethical leaking and open government," organizer James Chen said.

Here's what the site says about its mission and methods:

Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact; this means our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by non-technical people. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources.

The story really only quotes one source, Steven Aftergood, an open-government advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog. He thinks the site has the potential to make a big splash:

"I think it's an intriguing effort. It's significant that their emphasis seems to be on relatively closed societies rather than the U.S. or Europe, that have a rather robust media sector. They have the potential to make a difference."

But he's also concerned that participants - or even terrorists - could use the site to disseminate information that should not be made available.

"I want to see how they launch and what direction they go in," he said. "Indiscriminate disclosure can be as problematic as indiscriminate secrecy."

"Unless there are some kinds of editorial safeguards built into the process, it can be easily sabotaged. That was the concern I was trying to raise," Aftergood said. "We'll have to see."

Given the problems Wikipedia has faced by relying solely on its self-policing policy, and the fact that it's had to add levels of approval for edited pages, will Wikileaks run into similar problems? The founders are sticking to its self-correcting mechanisms for now.

"Wikileaks will provide a forum for the entire global community to examine any document relentlessly for credibility, plausibility, veracity and falsifiability," they wrote in response to e-mailed questions. "If a document is leaked from the Chinese government, the entire Chinese dissident community can freely scrutinize and discuss it; if a document is leaked from Somalia, the entire Somali refugee community can analyze it and put it in context. And so on."

Because organizers are scattered around the globe, "In the very unlikely event that we were to face coercion to make the software censorship friendly, there are many others who will continue the work in other jurisdictions."

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