January 20, 2007
THE internet could become even more difficult for governments to regulate with a new website, Wikileaks, promising to provide a safe haven for whistleblowers to upload confidential documents.
Australians are among the volunteers behind the site. “Your country’s support for the underdog and for a fair go is showing through,” a spokeswoman said.
Comparing themselves with the leaker of the Pentagon papers that damaged the Nixon administration and eroded US public confidence in the Vietnam War, Wikileaks’ creators say they will uncover unethical behaviour by developing “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis”.
Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia built around content created by tens of thousands of contributors. It says its sophisticated cryptographic technology ensures users cannot be traced.
A “wiki ” system is seen as a more effective method of leaking than simply publishing an article in the press or on a traditional website, because it allows for collaboration on a global scale.
Although the website says its primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet Bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, whistleblowing experts say it could have strong applications in Australia.
Kim Sawyer, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne and the vice-president of Whistleblowers Australia, said the website would “give us a mechanism to get stories out more into the international arena”. Dr Sawyer said whistleblower protection laws were “just cosmetic”, and cases such as the AWB kickbacks scandal could have been exposed faster if there were avenues to air issues anonymously.
Dr Sawyer said such a system could reduce fears of retaliation.
But Dr Sawyer and Alexander Brown, a senior research fellow at Griffith University who is leading a national research project on whistleblowing, said there were important issues surrounded anonymous whistleblowing.
One, Dr Brown said, was that it would encourage frivolous complaints and unwarranted material could pass unchecked. Dr Brown said that without an authority or media body to weigh up the “costs and benefits of blowing the whistle”, whistleblowers may put themselves in danger.
“An open deposit website doesn’t have any of those inbuilt protection or responsibility mechanisms,” he said.
The open-government advocate Steve Aftergood, who writes the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, fears that Wikileaks’ “indiscriminate disclosure” policy could result in potentially damaging documents, such as a nation’s defence plans, being made public.
The Wikileaks spokeswoman said more that 1 million documents were awaiting publication.