Saturday, April 02, 2011

Books: Inside Wikileaks

Daniel Domscheit-Berg (DDB), a hacker and member of the Chaos Computer Club, had been keeping an eye on Wikileaks for over a year, nursing a suspicion that it was some sort of front for an intelligence agency. That suspicion fell away in November of 2007, when Wikileaks published the Guantanamo Bay handbooks. Shortly thereafter, DDB invited Julian Assange to speak at the December meeting of the Chaos Computer Club, and began collaborating with Assange on the Wikileaks project, becoming a major coordinator of Wikileaks activities in Europe. By September of 2010, DDB had fallen out with Assange, and left Wikileaks to establish a competing system, called OpenLeaks (I've added the blog to my list).

This book is a description of DDB's experience working with Wikileaks. The main theme of the book is the unstable genius of Assange, which provides the context within which all of the technical, administrative, and political problems of Wikileaks had to be addressed.

DDB obviously has a bone to pick with Assange, and is using this book to publicize his own competing project. Like everything, it should be read with a skeptical eye -- this is simply the story that one man is telling. I actually had trouble finding independent information about DDB. His Wikipedia entry is sparse, and I only found one news article describing the release of this book. ( has posted a video of a recent interview.)

Anyway, this book provides some insight into what drives an entrepreneur like Assange. Wikileaks was a visionary project, and perhaps such a project can only be pushed through by someone with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Based on DDB's story, not only did Assange essentially dedicate his life to this high-risk project, but he also had the charisma to convince several volunteers and journalists to make substantial contributions to Wikileaks. This type of achievement is not possible for people with a healthy sense of their own limits.

DDB's thesis is that Assange's egocentrism* is destroying the project. DDB presents Assange as insisting of keeping total control over the project, while also being a completely inept administrator. I suspect that many visionary projects encounter this type of problem. The entrepreneur basically has to get the project off of the ground on his own because no-one else understands what he is trying to achieve, or they doubt that it is possible. Once the project has demonstrated success, the visionary entrepreneur will suddenly have collaborators, but he will not necessarily have any ability to manage a team. Even worse for a visionary project like Wikileaks, the entrepreneur cannot assume that his team-mates actually have a clear understanding of his own goals for the project -- after all, there are no examples from which they can derive shared expectations or even terminology. The visionary project has to deal with all of the problems of any start-up, plus the additional burden of having to deal with issues that no-one has dealt with before.

DDB sees three major core objectives for a project like Wikileaks:
  1. Maintain the anonymity of the source (while possibly enabling further communication)
  2. Organize and filter the documents, perhaps removing information about private persons.
  3. Publicize the documents.
These objectives can conflict with each other, especially when resources are scarce. DDB describes these conflicts, how Wikileaks tried to balance these objectives, and how the conflicts led to arguments among volunteers on the project.

Ultimately, DDB decided to start a competing institution, OpenLeaks. I wish him luck in this endeavor. This represents a maturation of the industry that Wikileaks established. Now we know what an institution like Wikileaks can accomplish. Now some people (like DDB) have first-hand experience tackling the problems of these anonymous leak systems. The only question now is how many of these institutions can be supported, and how will the public interact with them. Should a leak-source provide documents to both Wikileaks and OpenLeaks? Will that increase the chance of being identified? Will it assure prompt publication, or would it just waste resources with duplicate effort? How can a new institution gain the trust of potential sources? How does it demonstrate its ability to maintain anonymity?

It appears that the Wikileaks revolution has only just begun, and at some point it may be able to continue even if Wikileaks itself fails.

*my word, not DDB's; not meant as a psychological diagnosis

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