Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Daniel Domscheit-Berg And WikiLeaks' Insecure Future

An Interview With Daniel Domscheit-Berg

Most of the newspapers charged with vetting and dissemination of WikiLeaks documents insisted on "exclusivity" of one kind or another. What will the attitude of OpenLeaks be to such demands?

This precise problem is one where OpenLeaks has a very different strategy from WikiLeaks. Our approach also is a direct consequence of some of the lessons we have learned in the past years.

The issue is that one has to work with supporting publishers, news entities, NGOs and whomever in order to have someone putting the material into context. Readers need context, or else leaks just go by unnoticed and cannot make a difference. For this context you need the media, for example, and the media has some of its own business rules, such as a strong focus on breaking scoops. So one cannot really avoid these concurrent interests, but has to find a way out.

The problem WikiLeaks has is that it has to choose who gets the material. This means you lose your neutrality, and create a danger of making politics with how material is publicized, and with whom. The way our system works is that we give control back to the sources. The source decides who gets the material first (OpenLeaks does not accept documents at all, we just facilitate the reception for our partners), and for how long. By that mechanism we can appeal to the scoop-hungry nature of the media business, but can make sure that documents do not remain with one publisher alone, or are not reported on for whatever reason, but do at some point get disseminated to everybody else — just as the source wishes.

Please comment on the question of "ownership" of leaked materials, and on the idea of journalistic "scoops". What effect do issues of "professional stature", whether corporate or personal, have on the public's access to news?

The question of ownership is a difficult one. I do not believe that those documents really belong to anyone but the public. This is where the sources want them to be, and therefore this is where they should ultimately be.

The problem with scoops is not the scoops. It's rather the information hoarding in the media. Enabling newspapers to have scoops at least contributes to having more resources available for research, writing and so on [because money will be risked on such things in hopes of a wide readership, where it might not be risked on behalf of a non-exclusive story.] So the material has a better chance of being worked with intensively when it's a scoop, rather than something everybody else has. So while this is good, it's bad that there is no system for sharing the raw information with other entities or even the public, though. The consequence is that journalists have to write off each other's stories rather than being able to write their own analyses, and the quality gets worse because there is no need to do the job as well as possible.

So, again, with the dynamics of our system, we are trying to tackle precisely these issues.

You wrote in Inside Wikileaks that the "editorializing" of the Collateral Murder video, even to giving the video this title, was a mistake. Yet the framing of that story created a firestorm of interest both in the world press and among individuals interested in the true conduct (and cost) of the war. What methods do you think are fair ones for helping to bring broader attention to leaked information?

Was that a storm? I don't know. Maybe I have just become too blind from storm after storm. What I miss is not a storm, but a steady breeze nurturing the windmill driving societal change — not societal hype. Something more sustainable. Consequences, rather than hype for a few weeks.

My criticism was specific to the WikiLeaks role in this. I believe it was important that this editorialized version was done; it was just badly attached to us and confused some people in respect to our uneditorialized publication policy before. All information needs context so that people understand it. The quality of that context is what matters, and I think Collateral Murder was a really good job.

What nation has the fairest press, at the moment, and why?

That's a very difficult one. I do not consume the press in languages other than German, English and occasionally French. So there is not much I can tell about the quality of the majority of the press in the world. I personally read the German taz and then, depending on the stories, online news. Which can hardly be summarized.

To what extent will OpenLeaks involve itself in identifying and/or vetting the most "interesting" information received, or in helping to frame stories for the press, if at all?

We are not involved in this process at all. For various reasons. First of all, we think it is highly inefficient to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the editorial work involved. There are plenty of existing journalists, editors, publishers, et al. around, eagerly waiting for information. Secondly, once such a mechanism works, and is available for people use it to disclose information, things become much more complex from an editorial perspective. You then need not only lots of resources but also expertise, well-proven standards, and most of all accountability. So again, it makes sense to try and make use of those existing resources and focus on providing them with a tool enabling them to do a good job of enlightening us all.

Is Der Spiegel, or any other publication, involved in any formal way with OpenLeaks?

We are currently in the stage of setting up the alpha phase infrastructure. This phase will include six partners we work with, an even split of media organizations and NGOs. As this phase is mainly aimed at getting some more feedback on the systems we provide, and finish development of a few more tools, we are not going to work with any major news outlets for starters. This would make things more complicated than necessary, especially as we have a few very specific requirements for the system that require being looked into carefully by larger entities. We will focus on that part once alpha is launched, and we are working towards beta.

In that respect, while we receive a lot of feedback and interest from media and NGOs all around the world, we are currently not entering any specific agreements here. It's only talking for now, and only as much as we can afford timewise.

Are there other supporters of OpenLeaks that the public should know about?

We are currently building out our team in respect to a few bottlenecks we have defined. This will for example include someone taking care of the whole coordination with partners, which is taking a lot of time and also requires due care.

Generally, those announcements will be made via our blog, and we hope that when launched we find some more time to take care of that.

What about Birgitta Jónsdóttir? Is she involved with OpenLeaks, and/or will she be lending support? Has she broken permanently with Julian Assange/WikiLeaks? What is the current state of IMMI in Iceland? Is OpenLeaks involved there?

We are not formally involved with IMMI, but certainly are supporters of the project. The current status as much as I know is that it is being worked on, and given that the initiative involves four ministries I think, unfortunately takes some time. It has a broad cross-party support though, and has also been recognized by the EU in their motion to Iceland's request for EU membership, as an outstanding and important initiative that Iceland would bring to the EU.

Birgitta is not working with us, other than being just one of those around that have an interest in this field. She is supporting GreenLeaks as much as I know, which seems to be a quite solid project also. We are in touch with them, as with lots of other organisations, to transfer knowledge and see if we can help in any way. A big part of the ideal we pursue is also to be open about your knowledge, making sure that other entities trying to implement something similar, and therefore helping spread transparency, can benefit from our expertise. This whole field is inherently important for the future, and it's important we start to share our knowledge to make sure no one gets into trouble.

Would you be willing to rejoin forces with Julian Assange at any point in the future? What would that take?

I don't think so, no. I think we do not perceive the same goals at the core of it either.

Is OpenLeaks the kind of organization you and "the architect" envisioned in terms of transparency, accountability and technical impregnability?

OpenLeaks is the consequence of observations made by many people, mainly during their time with WikiLeaks, but clearly not limited to that. It is a well organized and well engineered approach as I would say, and therefore reaches a higher standard in terms of reliability and scalability.

How many full-time volunteers has OpenLeaks? How many volunteers have signed up online, so far? What does volunteering require, and how do people sign up?

We are currently working with a handful of people that invest a lot of time in the project, plus some more friends of the project working on some smaller tasks. There will certainly be a few more additions but generally we just do not have the means to manage more people. And it should be good enough to get us to beta, so there is some more time to take care of this. We are going step by step with everything.

Please comment on the situation of Pfc. Bradley Manning.

Well, I wouldn't even know where to begin if I fully had to comment. It is a shame to see how the US military administration is keeping this young man in inhumane conditions, clearly in the terrain of what "torture" should mean for anyone capable of common sense. If Bradley Manning is the source for the WL material, he deserves the gratitude and support of us all, and the public has to start acting up on this. If he is not, he deserves that support not any less.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

Photo by Jacob Appelbaum, via Wikimedia Commons.

12 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

"borrowing a jacket off his host so that he can feel "in character" while writing an important press release"

I just… I just… I just… the mind reels, etc.

(also, excellent per usual Maria)

scrooge (#2,697)

@HiredGoons Personally, I always don a white T-shirt before commenting on The Awl.

SeanP (#4,058)

@scrooge animal pelts and leg warmers here.

applejackell (#11,770)

At the least, concerns over platform security and privacy are entering the mainstream where once they were the preserve of a tech-savvy minority. The firewalls are starting to go up: around governments and corporations, but also around individuals. Smartphones and tablet computers—the two classes of device on which the future of digital culture is increasingly being forged—tend to offer both a more limited and a more secure online experience than open browsing on a traditional operating system.

KarenUhOh (#19)

A+, and I've not even had a chance to read the interview.

Another outstanding exegesis that brings a lot of information together on a timely topic.

Coachman140 (#11,779)

Nice stuff

Flashman (#418)

Darn. I thought this was going to be about Assange cutting a track with The Streets.

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

Thanks for this really thorough and thoughtful analysis of WikiLeaks & Openleaks. I think it's also important to add to Assange's missteps the murky (and ongoing) Israel Shamir fiasco.

It also seems that Assange and Domscheit-Berg have a fairly substantive ideological and tactical disagreement. Assange wanted to make a big splash and directly confront the US war machine and US imperialism, at least partially to trigger a backlash that would lay bare the mechanisms of power and cause greater secrecy/inefficency. Aaron Bady goes into great detail on this concept here:

Domscheit-Berg's approach seems more in keeping with traditional NGOs and advocacy media. The more wonkish and safe Openleaks model, while less likely to result in a personality cult, could prove less effective at seriously challenging the status quo. It is highly possible that documents leaked through OpenLeaks could reach their intended audience, but STILL never see the light of day. What if Domscheit-Berg had important information pass through his system, but the targeted NGO or media partner was simply too afraid to publish it? This scenario seems less likely under the WikiLeaks model.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Matt Cornell SO TRUE. It is nothing but minefields out there. OpenLeaks puts a lot of the burden on sources themselves to do their homework perfectly, to choose the right media organization–ideally the individual journalist who will shepherd your information the exact right way so that people see it and it doesn't just get lost in all the shouting. Still, even then you could be betrayed and/or shunted aside in about a thousand different ways.

And yeah, @zunguzungu has been stellar on this topic 100% of the time. He is a good Twitterer too.

Gene Jordano (#11,793)

Did the US Navy Seals learned the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden through WikiLeaks? Just wondering…

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

@Gene Jordano No, but the leaked cables show that the US had intelligence about OBL in Abbotabad as far back as 2008.

kpants (#719)

So many thoughts while reading this, but the biggest one was what a great piece you've written here, Maria. Excellent work.

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