Often when a leak happens, the source passes it on to a journalist. The journalist then ‘edits’ the data into a coherent story, which is then published. This may not be to the source’s liking; he or she may have wanted the data put out in its original, raw form. In the absence of the internet, one had to rely on newspapers and TV channels, whose ‘editing’ process introduced potential distortions. Naseeruddin Shah and the late lamented Ravi Baswani acted in the iconic film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, in which they obtained information that could damage many important people. But it was suppressed, and the characters landed in jail. WikiLeaks changes that – the source can ‘publish’ the data in its unedited, primordial form, which is often more damaging than a journalistically ‘edited’ one.
It claims to be obsessive about maintaining the secrecy of the whistleblowers who post content on its site; indeed it says even the site administrators do not know who they are. That has left it open to charges that the data can be fabricate, or more charitably, difficult to verify. WikiLeaks says traditional journalism is equally susceptible. It is based in Sweden, where revealing the source can be a crime (Does that make Sweden the most dangerous country in the world?).
We carried an earlier post about the future of news on the internet. Other than content farms and paid news, WikiLeaks presents a third way (as does WikiNews) – news published online and accessible for free, contributed by anyone and everyone using wiki technology, and paid for by donations, not advertisements. It follows an evolutionary theory, in that the news will over time become more accurate, as users change and modify entries as facts on the ground become clear.
If revenue is not needed from advertisement, where does it leave the agencies and their clients? The people who have the time and interest to pore over the Afghanistan leaks in detail, are more likely to access the raw content on WikiLeaks than read newspaper reports online. They become invisible to advertisers.
Partisans for paid online content like the WSJ have already taken positions against WikiLeaks, with Julian Assange being compared to the Unabomber. WikiNews and Wikipedia have long been the target of attacks on their credibility, given their belief in an ‘open internet’ and no advertising. China and Australia have imposed censorship on the site; a German associate of the site was raided by police in what he claims is harassment.
Time will tell whether WikiLeaks will become yet another transformative power on the internet, or whether it will crumble under attack from governments, corporations and courts, like Napster did. Whatever happens, the future of content will determine the future of online advertising, so we need to keep our eyes open all the time.