WikiLeaks Spinoffs?

by zunguzungu

The uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain (and elsewhere) have not been “spinoffs” of the Tunisian intifada, at least not in any simple way. You can’t dismiss the extent to which Ben Ali’s flight both emboldened protesters and organized dissent, and then sparked the flame that exploded in Tahrir square. But the tinder and fuel was already stacked high, and differently in each place, for its own different reasons. The Egyptian revolution is about labor organizing and about the particular set of circumstances that have allowed a multi-generational majorityof Egyptians to organize in the way they did, circumstances that have to be understood in their Egyptian context. But the underlying conditions which made an uprising in Tunisia both plausible and successful are to be found across the region, which is precisely why Ben Ali’s flight could serve as the kind of regional catalyst it did.

I’m not going to talk about that — read Jadaliyya if you want to read about that — but it’s a nice way to talk about the post-WikiLeaks effect, which we can see most clearly in the many WikiLeaks spinoffs that are now coming to exist. But while WikiLeaks has certainly emboldened and energized these groups (they all have “leaks” in the second part of their name), I suspect it is the free speech deficit of the world that we live in that makes them as inevitable as they are. WikiLeaks came into existence for particular reasons to its time and place, but it’s the ways the broader political media environment is changing (has changed) that helps explain why organizations like  GreenleaksEnviroleaks, RuleaksBrusselsLeaksTradeleaksBalkansleaks, Indoleaks, and Unileaks are suddenly popping up like mushrooms after a rainfall.

From The WIkiLeaks Giftshop (no really)

The size of that list is as telling as is the specific form each group is taking. “BrusselsLeaks,” for example, is targeting EU governance (based in Brussels) because the EU is an organization that needs to be targeted. They might have been inspired by WikiLeaks, in this sense, but that’s not why they exist. And you can say something similar about every member of that list: there’s a broad, enabling effect that WikiLeaks has had — courage, you might say, is contagious? — but what it has enabled different groups of people to do is likely to be different in each case. They’ll all bear watching.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s OpenLeaks, however, is the best organized and biggest spinoff, and they’ve gotten the most press because they really are a spinoff: many of the principles architects actually are former WikiLeaks people. From their FAQ page:

OpenLeaks is a technical framework and Knowledge Base aimed at enabling whistleblowers to disseminate data to third parties, such as NGOs, labor unions, the general public, and the media. We do not aim to publish documents directly, but rather to enable third parties to safely receive and work on documents themselves.

Our main focus is on getting submissions safely into the right hands, ultimately leaving the job of publication to the recipient. There are many institutions that need to receive and publish leaks which are regarded as trusted by the public. Our idea is to enable them with the technology and knowledge to receive digital data…We want to make leaking safer – not only for whistleblowers and those who publish their material but also for us, as intermediary and provider of a whistleblowing platform. Therefore OpenLeaks neither receives or publishes any leaks. We believe, that the existence of a growing community with all sorts of backgrounds (human rights, investigative journalism, etc), will hopefully defend the OpenLeaks system against any censoring attacks anywhere in the world, thus making the system sustainable…OpenLeaks is not involved in the direct editing and release of documents. Our intention is to function, as much as possible, as a mere conduit (akin to the telephone exchange and the post) between the whistleblower and an organization of their choice. This means that OpenLeaks does not accept submissions or publish leaked material directly.

So far, Openleaks hasn’t actually done anything, nor have most of the organizations I listed above. Whereas the “Al Jazeera Transparency Unit” was the means by which what have been called “The Palestine Papers” were leaked and published, and those documents have not so much derailed the Middle East peace process as revealed it to have never really been railed in the first place. But the effect was like an earthquake. Without going too deeply into it — which you can here, or here — it seems like no exaggeration to say that the “Palestine Papers” represent the first post-WikiLeaks document dump of real significance and real political impact, and it was a big deal. It won’t be the last, and maybe it gives us a sense for the direction things are going: leaking as an institutionalized adjunct to “real” journalism.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Anonymous is not an institution or journalism, and yet they managed to get their hands on (and actionably disseminate) documents showing HBGary Federal (a security firm) was trying to sell plans to the Bank of America and to the Chamber of Commerce a strategy of smearing supporters of WikiLeaks. Glenn Greenwald was a primary target, so here’s his account of what happened:

…what basically happened is there is an internet security firm called HB Gary that does a lot of work for the government and for large corporations. They do internet investigations and internet security. And about three months ago or so, there was a group of hackers around the world that called itself Anonymous. And what Anonymous did was they announced that any companies that targeted WikiLeaks for retribution would be targeted by these hackers, by Anonymous for retaliation. And so there were a variety of big companies like PayPal and MasterCard and Visa and Amazon that, in response to the U.S. government’s pressure, terminated their services to WikiLeaks. They said, “We won’t process credit card payments for WikiLeaks. We won’t allow — we won’t post their website. We won’t process payments to them.”

And so Anonymous, this group of hackers, targeted those companies and unleashed cyber attacks on them that slowed down their websites, on a couple of cases, removed them from being online. So the head of this internet security firm, HB Gary, decided that he was going to investigate Anonymous, try and find out who they were, who was responsible for these cyber attacks, and he began publicly boasting that he had successfully infiltrated this group, that he had uncovered the identities of several of the key hackers. And unsurprisingly, after he ran around publicly boasting about his success in infiltrating this group of hackers, the group of hackers, Anonymous, targeted him and his company and they hacked into the e-mail system of HB Gary and downloaded roughly 50,000 e-mails from the company that they then published online about a week ago. Among the e-mails that were published, they just randomly published 50,000 of this company’s e-mails. Among the e-mails that were published were a variety of proposals that HB Gary and other leading internet security firms had been pitching to the Bank of America and to the Chamber of Commerce.

In the case of Bank of America, they were proposing that various supporters of WikiLeaks, including myself, be targeted with smear campaigns, that our reputations be harmed and discredited and that we be threatened in some way that our careers would be over if we continue to advocate for WikiLeaks. And in the case of the Chamber of Commerce, they advocated that adversaries of the Chamber of Commerce like progressive groups and unions and activists who speak against the Chamber of Commerce also be similarly targeted and that their families should be monitored and that they discussed where the synagogues were, where the families went, really odious pernicious stuff probably in some cases illegal. And what made it such an important story is that the firms that were involved are serious legitimate players. I mean these are not fly-by-night operations. These are big companies that do a lot of high level work for the government and for big corporations.

They were pitching it to two of the biggest and most important commercial entities in the country, Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. And the key, the coordinating party, the one soliciting these proposals and encouraging them was the law firm of Hunton & Williams which represents the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America and is one of the most well-connected lobbyist and legal firms in Washington. And it turns out that the U.S. Government, the Justice Department had actually recommended that firm to Bank of America. They told Bank of America, “You should hire this firm in your war against WikiLeaks.” So there are a lot of big players and important serious players involved in what are really disturbing and likely criminal proposals on behalf of really significant and well-funded corporations. That’s why it caused so much news.

My first reaction to reading about this story was simple: Gosh, I said to myself. A bunch of documents got leaked to the general public, and then self-organized groups of that public combed through the data and found the stuff that was damning. That looks a lot like what Julian Assange had said WikiLeaks was trying to achieve but which it had given up trying to do when people didn’t step up and respond as they’d hoped. But Assange’s cynicism may have been premature. And it would be deeply ironic if the post-WikiLeaks effect of WikiLeaks was to allow quasi-anarchist organizations like Anonymous to accomplish what the original WikLeaks (in its far more utopian iteration) had despaired of accomplishing, even as they laid the foundations.