Pulling back the curtain of powerful institutions and exposing their secrets to the public has become the WikiLeaks legacy. My favourite analogy for the organisation comes from foreign policy expert John Feffer, who described it as a ‘full-body scanner for the government’ (2011). WikiLeaks.org offers a more specific definition: a multi-national media organisation which collects and curates a giant digital library of the world’s most persecuted documents.
Over the past decade, WikiLeaks has published more than 10 million documents that were delivered anonymously to the cryptographically secured drop box on its website, met with everything from fervent praise to stringent criticism. The very same organisation that received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (Blair and Gojković 2018) was described by CIA Director Mike Pompeo as a “hostile threat to national security on a mission to destroy Western values for personal self-aggrandizement” (Rosenberg 2017). Some lionise the organisation for ushering in a new age of “hacktivist” civil disobedience (Taylor 2017), while others demonise its role in destabilising the world order for a mere illusion of transparency (Roberts 2012).
Since its founding in over a decade ago, the organisation has evolved from an alternative to the mainstream media, to a co-publisher and partner, and most recently to an attacker (Christensen 2018). Thus, to determine the status of WikiLeaks as a catalyst of political, social, economic and cultural change, this essay explores the history of both the organisation and its surrounding ecology.
You could be forgiven for thinking the origin story of Julian Assange was written by John Le Carré. As a talented young hacker swept up in Melbourne’s cypherpunk movement in the late 80’s, Assange—then known by his screen name, Mendax—found intellectual stimulation exploring the most hidden corners of cyberspace. While he was still just a teenager, the exploration was promptly cut short; his house was raided by the Australian Federal Police, who had coerced one of his accomplices into cutting a deal. Assange served 3 years of probation, pleading guilty to 24 offences of penetrating, altering, and destroying data in US military’s central network, MILNET. The later chapters would suggest the punishment only consolidated his interests.
By 35, Assange had found a purpose to match his preferred method of intellectual exercise. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the imbalance of justice in the world, the former hacker decided that unlocking uncensored truths of the world’s most powerful institutions could help to even the keel. To do so, he decided to build a system that would expose them from the inside.
The system, WikiLeaks, allowed whistleblowers with access to government, military, or corporate information to leak it anonymously. Then, WikiLeaks would host it on the internet sans redactions or spin, where the world could decide for itself what to make of it. Lacking the resources to defy physical or legal retaliation, the system would ensure a different line of defence: anonymity.
Well-versed in system security, he created the basic design for the site a with the help of a small group of mathematicians, political dissidents, start-up technologists, and journalists from all around the world who would serve as the original founding members and volunteers. Wikileaks.org was born in October 2006, and the timing was perfect. Since 9/11, the security agencies of the US government had been engaged in a war with enemies they didn’t understand, collecting secrets about their enemies and keeping them from their own citizens (Mokrosinska 2018).
In this environment of secrecy, Assange went fishing for the truth. The infographic below details the key events in the rest of WikiLeaks’ history.
Those known to have worked full time for the WikiLeaks organisation include Assange, Daniels Domscheit-Berg, Sarah Harrison, Kristinn Hrafnsson and Joseph Farrell. In a January 2010 interview, Assange revealed there were more in the initial group who had chosen to remain anonymous due to their refugee status. A distributed workforce of over a thousand technologists, activists and lawyers contribute their efforts voluntarily to process the vast amounts of data it receives. This group decides what information is authoritative, what information is important, and publishes it accordingly. This is where WikiLeaks differs from a traditional wiki, which can be edited by anyone.
As a not-for-profit organisation, WikiLeaks runs on funding from donors. Visa, Mastercard and PayPal stopped processing donations to the website in 2010, despite a lack of any real charges against the organisation (Beyer 2014). In response to the financial blockade, the hacker collective Anonymous launched cyberattacks, taking down the websites of Visa, PayPal and Mastercard. The website now asks for donations in Bitcoin.
As a non-profit, the business model intends to enact change rather than generate profits. In 2014, Assange described the change WikiLeaks wished to create. He explained that he sees censorship as a pyramid with four distinct steps.
As you ascend through the steps, they increase in severity while decreasing in volume. At the top, the murder of journalists and publishers constitutes the least common form. At the bottom, a lack of access to communications or an audience is the most common of censorship.
Analogous to a businessmen trying to isolate his market-entry point, Assange deduced that the per-event significance at the top half of the pyramid made it the logical place to fight censorship. WikiLeaks focuses its attention on enabling the few whistleblowers with access to the most persecuted documents in the world, who are likely putting their life or their freedom at risk by releasing them. This model has proven to be extremely effective. Individuals like Chelsea Manning—along with the vast majority who remain unnamed—have unveiled systemic injustice in governments, militaries, and corporations that affect almost everyone on Earth.
As the previous section concludes, whistleblowers are the powerful nodes in the WikiLeaks ecology. Through its technology, operations, and partners, the organisation is committed to the protection of its sources. Technologically, the WikiLeaks ecology is enabled by the private browser Tor, and the private operating system Tails. A whistleblower really doesn’t need any more tools to anonymously share information and communicate. The greater risk is that they are only ones privy to it, or their extraction method inevitably leaves a trace.
As a result, the most important aspect of the ecology over the longer term is the legal defence.WikiLeaks partners with free-press organisations like Reporters Without Borders, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to raise funding and provide legal assistance for itself and its sources (where Courage is the key partner).
While funding for the organisation comes in from all sources, often anonymously, the Wau Holland Foundation has been particularly important; as the primary funding source, it had raised over $1.2m in USD by end 2010. More recent figures have not been disclosed, although the website still includes a link to donate to WikiLeaks.
After the whistleblowers, the second key aspect of the ecology is the network of co-publishers that act as a megaphone for WikiLeaks’ information. In a contribution to the International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, journalism professor Christian Christensen from Stockholm University looked back on the organisation’s contribution to his field, describing three distinct stages of WikiLeaks:
- Adaption, and
The initial phase spanned from the organisation’s first leak in October 2006 to the moment it was thrust onto the world stage by the Manning leaks, beginning with the Collateral Murder video on April 5th 2010. Material would be placed straight onto the website, and the whole organisation operated as an alternative to the conventional media.
To manage the workload and effectively distribute the Manning leaks in 2010, WikiLeaks was forced to adapt. The organisation collaborated with a special team of military reporters from the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel for 5 weeks to review the documents. This was new ground for the organisation which had previously released documents straight onto their website.
This relationship soured to the point of abstention and attack as Assange’s personal legal troubles became intertwined with the organisation. WikiLeaks’ former media partners continued to defend their right to free speech, but began to turn on Assange. They wanted the material, they were complicit in publishing it, but sought to distance themselves from the negative press surrounding him.
In this section, I examine a series of changes that have resulted from WikiLeaks’ existence. The changes are split into four subsections: a new legal model, mobilisation of social and cultural change, social and political relations, and new regulatory processes.
Mobilisation of social and cultural change
Perhaps the most influential role WikiLeaks has played in the mobilisation of social and cultural change came as a result of the US diplomatic cables supplied by Chelsea Manning. Coverage of the cables included proof of that the US was giving Israelis on how to justify war crimes committed on the Gaza Strip, and exposed criminal behaviour and corruption by tyrants in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. In effect, WikiLeaks fuelled the Arab Spring, an explosion of public anger against repression which caused an almost unparalleled global shift in power and stability in the Muslim world.
A new legal model
The Economist (2013) describes WikiLeaks as a legal innovation, not a technical one. Highlighting similarities with its own technical operations, it points out that WikiLeaks’ real triumph is that their distributed data-routing system houses its network of servers in carefully selected countries like Iceland and Belgium, which uphold the most generous whistleblower-protection laws. In short, WikiLeaks hacked the world’s legal systems and constructed a structure that requires it to answer only to its own conscience.
WikiLeaks’ ability to receive and distribute leaked information cheaply, quickly, and seemingly unstoppably further enables it to bypass the legal framework that would otherwise allow courts and officials to balance the beneficial effects of a disclosure against its harmful ones (Ball and Beckett 2012; Fenster 2012).
Social and political relations
To examine how WikiLeaks has transformed social and political relations, let’s examine two pivotal releases from its most influential period, the latter half of 2010.
On the 25th of July, the Afghan War Logs were released. They revealed a conflict that was very different from what the world had been told. Civilian casualties were much higher than reported, US-funded ally Pakistan was working with the Taliban to plan attacks in Afghanistan, and a US military assassination squad with a terrible record of wounding and killing women and children was revealed.
On the 22nd of October, they were followed by the Iraq War logs (see The Iraq Archive: The Strands of a War piece by The New York Times). Nearly half a million documents included details of the US military purposely hiding information about civilian casualties and systematic torture. Presidents Bush and Obama sanctioned the mass handover of Iraqi prisoners of war from the American troops over to the Iraqi authorities, while being aware of 1300 allegations—backed by medical evidence—of horrific torture by Iraqi army and police against detainees. Handing prisoners of war to another authority you know commits torture is a transgression against the Geneva conventions, so both US governments had technically committed war crimes. The public saw an entirely different side to the war, where US allies sodomised, abused, and murdered their prisoners; exactly the sort of torture that they were supposedly liberating Iraq from.
New regulatory processes
In a broad study published by the Oxford University Press, Cherie Blair and Ema Gojković examined the range of legal proceedings which included references to documents published by WikiLeaks in pursuit of clarity on the admissibility of illegally obtained evidence in international arbitration law. Mixed precedents had been set by the International Court of Justice, which had ruled such evidence admissible Corfu Channel case between the UK and Albania in 1947-9 but inadmissible in the Iranian Hostages case between the US and the Iranian government in 1980.
Speculating that the ongoing illegal activity—the detention of US diplomats in the latter case—was the difference of consequence between the two rulings, Blair and Gojković go on to examine similar cases related to the US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks. Referring to cases seen by the Court of Justice of the European Union (Persia International Bank v Council), the European Court of Human Rights (El Masri v Macedonia, Al-Nashiri v Poland), and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Yukos v Russia, ConocoPhillips v Venezuela), the researchers concluded that while the WikiLeaks cases did not yield a common test for the admissibility of illegally obtained evidence, three clear elements emerged which will guide future international proceedings:
- Was the evidence obtained illegally by a party seeking to benefit from it?
- Does public interest favour the admissibility of the evidence?
- Do the interests of justice favour the admission of the evidence?
The cables have triggered new regulatory processes and set precedents for the future admissibility of whistleblowing evidence.
WikiLeaks has been an immensely influential form of internet transformation. The information it has disseminated into the public sphere has reshaped the narrative of entire government administrations and wars, and fuelled radical social and cultural change. The organisation itself represents a significant legal innovation, and a historical change in the field of journalism. Despite his flaws, Assange’s organisation has seen moments of incredible triumph in promoting justice and enforcing the accountability of the world’s powerful institutions for their actions.
Ball, J., and Beckett, C. 2012. WikiLeaks: News in the Networked Era, Polity Press. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2DbnddR>
Beyer, J. 2014. The Emergence of a Freedom of Information Movement: Anonymous, WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party, and Iceland. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 141-154. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2PhKodV>
Blair, C., and Gojković, E. V. 2018. WikiLeaks and Beyond: Discerning an International Standard for the Admissibility of Illegally Obtained Evidence, Foreign Investment Law Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 235-259. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2Pmn2Ux>
Christensen, C. 2014. A decade of WikiLeaks: So what?. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 273-284. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2DthLnv>
Economist (anonymous author). 2013. WikiLeaks is a legal innovation, not a tech one. The Economist. Available at: <https://econ.st/2QwKXwT>
Feffer, J. 2011. WikiLeaks: Full Body Scan of Government. Huffington Post. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2DuuCFX>
Fenster, M. 2012. Disclosure ’s Effects: WikiLeaks and Transparency. Iowa Law Revue, No. 97. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2SZEFHH>
Firmino, R., Melgaço, L., and Kloza, D. 2018. The spatial bonds of WikiLeaks. Government Information Quarterly, No. 35, pp. 389-397. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2RGCibl>
Ludlow, P. 2018. WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture. The Nation. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2yYQLbE>
Mokrosinska, D. 2018. The People’s Right to Know and State Secrecy. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence. Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 87-106. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2PRAwGY>
Roberts, A. 2012. WikiLeaks: the illusion of transparency. International Review of Administrative Sciences, No. 78, Vol. 1, pp. 116-133. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2RLsv3Y>
Rosenberg, M. 2017. Mike Pompeo, Once a WikiLeaks Fan, Attacks it as Hostile Agent. The New York Times. Available at: <https://nyti.ms/2pcvEiu>
Taylor, C. A. 2017. The Ethics of WikiLeaks. Greenhaven Publishing. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2DsYjaH>
Thompson, D. F. 1999. Democratic Secrecy. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 181-193. Available at: <https://bit.ly/2PiUICo>