VANCOUVER — Will the post-first, ask-questions-later attitude fuelling much of online citizen journalism open new doors for government insiders and other whistleblowers to tell what they know on the Internet?
Maybe it already has.
Wikileaks.org says it guarantees anonymity for anyone submitting secret documents. It offers hundreds of thousands of so-called leaks for the public and journalists to see.
An offshoot of Wikipedia started more than two years ago by an international group of activists and journalists, Wikileaks has posted several notable leaks, including uncensored operating manuals for the infamous U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The site’s administrators say they take steps to verify authenticity but, after that, pretty much anything goes, which has raised legal and ethical questions about posting such material without first considering where they came from and why.
“Once we have verified (a document), there is no more judgment from a moral or ethical perspective,” Daniel Schmitt, who helps review documents for Wikileaks, explained from Germany.
“That’s not because we don’t feel that maybe there is an ethical question to some material, it’s more that the moment that we would decide what is worthy of being published, what is relevant, what is ethical, we would actually be in a censoring position.”
There are a number of documents of Canadian interest on the site, many connected to the military and its ongoing mission in Afghanistan. Several Canadian and international media outlets have done stories based on content that first appeared on Wikileaks.
There don’t seem to be other examples of websites inviting whistleblowers to post secret documents from inside governments or corporations. Schmitt claims Wikileaks is the only one.
However, he says the site does fit into a larger shift on the Internet that focuses on giving users control over information, without the filters of traditional media.
Wikileaks empowers users and new media sites, as well as traditional news outlets, by giving them access to material they might not have the resources or the sources to obtain themselves, he says.
“In the context of the whole movement towards an open society and more information being available to everyone, we are a little on the extreme side.”
“And we are an open service, you don’t have to be a very big newspaper like the New York Times, you can have us publish this and you can write about genuine material.”
The site has faced criticism for not offering any indication of who might have provided the documents, their motivation or the larger context that you might get from a traditional media outlet.
But veteran Canadian activist Judy Rebick, who teaches media and social justice issues at Ryerson University in Toronto, agrees the site is a natural next step in the evolution of social media and user-generated news.
“It’s part of a whole movement that exists online to challenge the traditional gatekeepers of information, and to suggest that those filters should be decided more democratically than they are,” she says.
“The fact that information can get out without the gatekeepers filtering it is a good thing — and, ultimately, the public will decide.”
Rebick says more importantly, sites like Wikileaks — not to mention how easy it’s become for just about anyone to post content on the web on their own, even anonymously — might spur governments to make changes to encourage whistleblowers to use legal channels, rather than turn to the Internet.
“It makes it easier for (whistleblower advocacy) groups to make their point and say, ’Look, if you don’t loosen the restrictions on whistleblowers or bring in legislation for whistleblowers, then we’re going to have no restrictions and these kinds of sites are going to proliferate and become more significant.”’
That’s exactly how FAIR, an Ottawa-based group that wants greater legal protection for whistleblowers, sees the potential of the Internet.
The group’s executive director, David Hutton, says a person that has information about wrongdoing, especially in government, has few legal options to bring attention to the public’s attention.
For example, he says Canada’s two-year-old Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, an independent office that reports to the House of Commons on potential allegations of wrongdoing in the bureaucracy, hasn’t found any wrongdoing since the office was created.
And even if the commissioner finds wrongdoing someday, Hutton says all that would ever be made public is whatever the commissioner tells Parliament.
“So, if you were someone who wanted to get your information out there, this doesn’t look like a very promising approach,” he says.
“The official channels will often make things worse, so people may have a legal or a moral obligation to try them first, but they absolutely need to have a backup plan.”