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Wikileaks' many cousins

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By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 18, 2011

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The endless Wikileaks commentary has tended toward acerbic portraits of the organization's founder, Julian Assange, and earnest debates over journalistic ethics.

But the more practical question, the more crucial question, is this: how to best replicate a model that's clearly here to stay?

The Wikileaks imitators are already legion. Al Jazeera launched its Transparency Unit in January. The Wall Street Journal just put SafeHouse online a few weeks ago. And Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times says the paper of record is weighing its own "EZ Pass lane for leakers."

It seems entirely possible that a digital "drop box" for anonymous whistleblowers will be a standard feature on any major or midsize news organization's web site — not to mention leading unions' and nonprofits' sites — within three years.

Indeed, Openleaks — founded by Wiki-leaks defectors — is busy working on a leaking protocol that it plans to customize for a sweeping collection of media and advocacy organizations the world over.

But this leaks business, it turns out, is a tricky one. Take the most recent venture. The Wall Street Journal's SafeHouse site had only been live for a matter of hours when security experts started calling it, among other things, a "total anonymity failure."

A series of patches followed. But the paper still faces questions about the "terms and conditions" it imposes on would-be leakers. The legalese includes this rather alarming statement: the Journal "reserve[s] the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process."

The Journal, facing sharp criticism for the language, issued a statement about the heavy premium it places on protecting sources. And there is no reason to doubt the paper's sincerity.

But as Peter Scheer, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition, points out, the Journal's terms and conditions speak to a larger quandary for mainstream media organizations.

Wikileaks, a transnational and loosely organized group, has remained largely beyond the reach of the law — Assange's personal legal problems notwithstanding. But the Journal and other traditional news gatherers weighing digital drop boxes operate in a different world.

"If you're a legitimate business and you have assets and employees and shareholders you have to worry about, you can't just deny the existence of certain laws and legal systems and the potential for court orders," says Scheer, who will appear on a Wikileaks panel at the Providence Biltmore on May 21 as part of the FOI Summit, hosted by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the New England First Amendment Coalition.

It's possible to imagine a way around the problem — a third party, outside the jurisdiction of US courts, that fields leaks, ensures the anonymity of the leakers, and funnels the information to mainstream news organizations in a far more systematic way than Wikileaks has to date.

But that would raise questions of trust, control, and ethics that have soured the relationship between Wikileaks and organizations like the New York Times, whose executive editor famously lashed out at Assange in a Times Magazine article.

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  Topics: This Just In , Bill Keller, New York Times, Wall Street Journal,  More more >
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