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December 10, 2010

OpenLeaks: The potential problem with a rising Wikileaks competitor

Former key figures behind the secrets-spilling website Wikileaks have split off and are preparing their own, new website called OpenLeaks, which is expected to launch Monday.

The ex-Wikileaks figures reportedly were frustrated with the group's leader, Julian Assange, and his apparently autocratic behavior.

The group behind OpenLeaks says it'll be different from Wikileaks in one major way: it will only act as an online collection point for confidential documents. It will then partner with media and nonprofit groups who will access their database and will be able to report, fact-check and write about the documents.

But is there a problem with this set up, at least in the context of U.S. laws and the presumed rights of publishers to freely publish classified information? (See this Congressional Research Service report on the topic.)

If OpenLeaks doesn't actually act as a publisher, can it be afforded the rights due to a free press? It sounds like it will become a repository for classified and confidential documents, but will its legal right to behave in such a manner actually put it in a weaker position than Wikileaks?

Say what you will about Wikileaks, but Assange's argument is that the group is indeed a publisher and entitled to hold and disclose documents under freedom of the press protections.

The State Department, however, says it believes that Assange and Wikileaks are not in the business of journalism, and thus not entitled to protections. Imagine what the State Department will think of OpenLeaks.

Will OpenLeaks be entitled to "freedom of the press" protection -- at least in the United States -- if it's not actually publishing? Or will it be easier for the U.S. Justice Department to make the claim that OpenLeaks is not a publisher and thus, illegally holding and maintaining classified government documents?

UPDATE: 2:55 p.m.

I've had a chance to clarify and expand upon my thinking about OpenLeaks and I have another point to add: what is the value proposition of OpenLeaks to the leaker/source?

With Wikileaks, if you have authentic, meaningful documents, the site has a proven track record of posting them without a filter. People get to see the documents themselves and journalists can refer to them. But the source material is made public without a filter. This is a revolution for traditional media, and one that frightens many people -- but it democratizes information.

Now take OpenLeaks. OL will apparently act as a middle man, a conduit, a trafficker and repository of sensitive information, but it will NOT be a publisher. Instead, it will allow for essentially traditional media and other orgs (i.e., NGOs) to engage in publishing.

But from the view of a leaker, the person who is putting his/her life on the line, which site is more attractive to you? Wikileaks, with its publish-it-all mentality -- or OpenLeaks, which invites traditional journalists (who many believe their slacking is part of the problem these days) to filter the leaks.

If I were a leaker, I'd choose Wikileaks, hands down.

This isn't to say Wikileaks doesn't have its organizational problems and challenges with Julian Assange, as its charismatic and reportedly autocratic leader. But Wikileaks is taking the risk of publishing, and not introducing an intermediary.

See this Ars Technica piece and the ensuing comments for more debate:

This is an archived version of the technology blog. For updated coverage, see the current baltTech location:
Posted by Gus Sentementes at 10:26 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: *NEWS*, Big Ideas


I am glad this is all happening. Let there be 1,000 leak organizations out there. This evil secrecy system that we are all victims of encourages abuse, corruption, and worse yet enables a select few to manufacture evidence to start wars. The world has been waiting a very long time for a foolproof mechanism to hold governments accountable, and we now have it. Thank you Wikilieaks.

The more 'leak' websites there are, the better. Openleaks might want to rethink its decision to serve only as a collection point for the reasons highlighted in the article as the government wants to limit the Pentagon Papers case to media outlets.

Domscheit should also consider the treatment that the mainstream media has given to the wikileaks cables. Some right-wing outlets have focused only on the cables supporting the american narrative and dismissing the others as gossip, purposefully ignoring a cache of information that puts America and its allies in a bad light. Allowing the public access to the cables is key, so we can make up our own minds.

How is a traditional journalist a slacker, as some people seem to feel, if his job does not make him a repository of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables? As a 25-year AP reporter, I made my best use of fresh and once-in-a-while confidential info, but 99% of my work time wasn't in that realm. People have really dumb ideas of what most people in the news business do, i.e. that they learn crazy secrets and then tell no one. Plus, most Wikileaks material has been in the media already. It's merely confirming stuff already known.

Under the operations described, OpenLeaks reads more like a co-conspirator for anything taken illegally.

ha! you said, "If I were a leaker"! ;)

Finally, someone has raised what seemed like an obvious problem for Openleaks!

Having listened to a lecture by an Openleaks principal and former Wikileaker, it seemed to me that one of the main reasons he and others had left Wikileaks was FEAR OF EXTERNAL FORCES rather than Assange's personality or management style. The whole idea was just fine with them until the heat got turned up by the U.S Government (can't we just all be friends?). The irony is that they are probably opening themselves up to more problems given their weak leaking model which makes them a mechanism (like spyware) rather than an end user (like a publisher).

Assange is far brighter and far braver than the Openleakers....and the U.S. Government.

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About Gus G. Sentementes
Gus G. Sentementes (@gussent on Twitter) has been writing for The Baltimore Sun since 2000. He's covered real estate, business, prisons, and suburban and Baltimore City crime and cops. He was one of the first reporters at The Sun to use multimedia tools and Web applications -- a video camera, an iPhone -- to cover breaking news. He hopes to cover Maryland geeks and the gadgets and Web sites they build, and learn -- and share -- something new every day.

Gus has a wife, a young daughter and two feuding cats. They live in Northeast Baltimore.
This is an archived version of the technology blog. For updated coverage, see the current baltTech location:

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