Digital A-List

Ad Age Digital A-List: Wikileaks

Regardless of How You Feel About Assange, His WikiLeaks Has Changed the Digital Landscape, Destabilizing Governments and Corporations

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How you feel about the presence of WikiLeaks on the 2011 Digital A-List may have a lot to do with the extent to which you can emotionally separate the controversial website from its lightning rod of a founder, Julian Assange.

Assange: He fears assassination. No matter his fate, WikiLeaks alumni and allies vow to carry on.
Assange: He fears assassination. No matter his fate, WikiLeaks alumni and allies vow to carry on. Credit: Bloomberg

The divide of opinion about the man could not be more pronounced, with some seeing him as an information-freedom fighter (Norwegian parliamentarian Snorre Valen nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize for exposing "corruption, war crimes and torture") while others brand him a terrorist (he's "an anti-American operative," says Sarah Palin, "with blood on his hands"). Add in the personal drama that surrounds him -- including an ongoing Swedish sex-crimes investigation and the fact that he has a penchant for alienating even his closest allies -- and WikiLeaks can seem both overshadowed by, and inseparable from, its leader.

But forget Mr. Assange, the man, for a moment. One thing about WikiLeaks, the organization, is certain: In the past year, it's altered not only the media landscape, but the digital landscape, and the Digital A-List is about change agents who rewrite the rules -- or write their own rules from scratch -- for better or for worse. Governments have been destabilized by WikiLeaks, and given that Mr. Assange seems to regard governments and corporations as interchangeably evil, marketers could be next. For starters, WikiLeaks reportedly has the potentially explosive contents of a Bank of America executive's email archives.

Mr. Assange calls himself editor in chief of WikiLeaks -- which is to suggest that WikiLeaks is a publisher, and thus subject to the press protections afforded by various Western governments. In reality, it was WikiLeaks' partnerships with traditional publishing organizations willing to package and promote its leaks as page-one-worthy material -- including The Guardian and The New York Times -- that arguably gave WikiLeaks much of its heat in 2010.

It's perhaps more useful, then, to think of WikiLeaks as a technology platform: a way for parties in possession of sensitive documents to make them public in a way that is indelible and anonymous. Or, as WikiLeaks puts it, "an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking."

The paradox of WikiLeaks is that it uses ultra-secrecy -- including so-called onion routing, which cloaks packets of data in multiple layers of anonymity as they traverse the web -- to destroy secrecy. The onion becomes a Pandora's Box.

As for the fact that U.S. Army Specialist Bradley Manning is being held in solitary confinement awaiting a possible court martial on suspicion of passing classified government materials to WikiLeaks? That stems largely from the testimony of a computer hacker who claims that Mr. Manning bragged to him about his alleged crime of espionage. Remarkably, in January, NBC News reported that "investigators have been unable to make any direct connection" between Mr. Manning and Mr. Assange and that there is "apparently no evidence he passed the files directly to Assange, or had any direct contact with the controversial WikiLeaks figure."

Combine that untraceability with an elusive, border-crossing (and thus legal-jurisdiction-defying) technological backbone with hundreds of duplicate or "mirror" sites spread out across the globe, and WikiLeaks begins to seem like the ultimate unstoppable force on a perpetual collision course with (formerly) immovable objects -- specifically, governments and corporations. Governments have, thus far, been unable to stop WikiLeaks; corporations are likely to be just as impotent.

As for the Bank of America emails, nobody -- possibly not even Mr. Assange -- knows just how revealing and damaging they may be. But it's telling that pro-WikiLeaks hackers have already released internal emails from computer security firm HBGary Federal, which helped put together a proposal for the law firm Hunton & Williams, which works for Bank of America. It was called "The WikiLeaks Threat," and it was a plan for bringing down WikiLeaks. Nice try, fellas.

In fact, the future of WikiLeaks itself may be beside the point. The organization depends on a worldwide network of volunteers and donors, and Mr. Assange seems to have pissed off a good number of them, including his former deputy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. WikiLeaks alumni and allies seem eager to carry on Mr. Assange's legacy, regardless of whether or not he's prosecuted (or, as he fears, assassinated). For instance, Mr. Domscheit-Berg, when he wasn't working on his just-released tell-all, "Inside WikiLeaks," was preparing for the launch of WikiLeaks alternative OpenLeaks. As he explained it to The New York Times, OpenLeaks will "provide the technology to be able to receive documents and to protect the sources that send those documents, and it will provide that technology to existing organizations, like nongovernmental organizations and media entities and maybe labor unions or special interest groups."

Regardless of Mr. Assange's personal fate, what matters is the WikiLeaks Effect: a growing awareness, among both self-styled whistleblowers and saboteurs, that they now have multiple frictionless options for releasing sensitive information to the world.

As for deciding what that new reality could or should do to your corporate culture, start by asking yourself some questions: What would happen if a certain email or memo you've written were widely disseminated outside your company? And: What else is on your hard drive (or in your cloud), and who, other than everybody in your IT department, has ready access to it?

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