The Irony of Wikileaks

It’s been an interesting year for WikiLeaks. Having broken a number of important stories, they’re famous enough now that people outside the internet community have a chance at knowing who they are. But they’ve also had problems. They’ve shut down the site for a significant fundraising goal, and now, according to their twitter feed, they’re being pursued by the US Government for preparing to leak a murder video in which Uncle Sam is allegedly caught with the smoking gun.

First I want to acknowledge that a site like WikiLeaks is treading on grey territory by its very definition. There is a fine line between classified information and whistleblower-worthy information. While the ideological goal of WikiLeaks — to provide the world’s first truly free press — is noble, there is also a reason why organizations, like individuals, need privacy. Publishing the details of banking negotiations between Iceland and Britain, for example, doesn’t seem very noble to me. No more noble than if I published messy divorce proceedings I found in a neighbor’s trash can. But there have also been many instances where WikiLeaks has fearlessly exposed wrongdoing that would have otherwise been covered up.

Jumping over the philosophical argument though, the recent events concerning WikiLeaks got me thinking: how could we design a better WikiLeaks that is resistant to the problems it currently has? Namely, a WikiLeaks that 1) doesn’t need fundraising, and 2) can’t be shot by angry spies. What if WikiLeaks was a sort of Wiki-BitTorrent, served by thousands of people around the world running a background process on their computers. No fundraising needed here, it’s all P2P. And if the Wiki is maintained WikiPedia style, then we no longer need to pay for a centralized staff to curate it. Plus, there’s no centralized staff to kill or jail. It can be a decentralized, collaborative process.

And then I realized the irony. What if this experiment in citizen’s power is successful precisely because it is a dictatorship?

If WikiLeaks was P2P, then it could be attacked — poisoned at the infrastructural level by the governments and corporations that do not want to see it succeed. Even worse, a P2P WikiLeaks could be left standing, but its content could be poisoned with fake and misleading files. Sort of how the RIAA uploads music files to file-sharing networks that actually just contain 3 minutes of silence. With the signal-to-noise ration low enough, the whole operation would be discredited, and the site would essentially be useless. Even if such information-poisoning wasn’t known by the public, how could anyone trust an anonymously curated site to provide reliable truth on such secretive subjects?

It seems a single point of control — the editor — might be necessary for WikiLeaks to succeed, because we need a way to know whether to trust the explosive documents it publishes. If only we could place our absolute trust in an editor, then we can be assured of the veracity of the leaked documents.

And that makes WikiLeaks just as old fashioned as it is revolutionary.