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Interview with Daniel Domscheidt-Berg of Open Leaks

Interview with Daniel Domscheidt-Berg, 24 February 2011

by Jon Stephenson

Daniel Domscheidt-Berg, December 2009, (Image: CC, andygee1 , Flickr)

Editor's note: Daniel Domscheidt-Berg left WikiLeaks in September 2010 and has since founded Open Leaks. A book about his experience and separation from WikiLeaks was released in February, 2011 entitled "Inside WikiLeaks: Meine Zeit bei der gefährlichsten Website der Welt" ("My Time at the World's Most Dangerous Website"). In this interview conducted in Copenhagen with Jon Stephenson, Domscheidt-Berg discusses his departure from WikiLeaks and his new project.

Jon Stephenson: Can you explain why you decided to form Open Leaks?

Daniel Domscheidt-Berg: Well, Open Leaks is, let’s say, a result of the experiences we had with Wikileaks in the last three years. In September, 2010, after about half a year of struggle within Wikileaks, we decided that it was not headed in a way that we thought was the best or most efficient outcome. And in that respect we decided to leave the project and create a new project called Open Leaks that is going to address all the issues about transparency and enabling whistle-blowers more efficiently – at least, that’s our hope.

JS: So, what will be the difference between Openleaks and Wikileaks in practical terms?

DD-B: Wikileaks is trying to be everything at once: from an entity that can accept documents from whistle-blowers to the entity that is publishing this material. Between these two areas there is a lot of work, there is a lot of responsibility – and there is also a lot of power that comes with being able to control that flow from the reception [of documents] to the publication. What Open Leaks will do is try to be much less than Wikileaks is. So, we are just focusing on providing technology that can be used so that whistle-blowers can anonymously send in documents, and we will offer that technology to existing organizations like NGOs, like the media, maybe labour unions and other organisations that have an interest in informing the public. And in that respect we’re just taking care of protecting the sources and offering an online tool, but we’re not into the business of verifying documents, making editorial decisions on documents, or publishing these documents.

JS: A lot of people were concerned about Wikileaks in part, or in large part, because of the personality of Julian Assange – and a lot of people criticised what they saw as a lot of power being concentrated in the hands of one person.

DD-B: That was the concern that we all had. It started in 2010 when Wikileaks became very politically powerful, especially after the publication of the Collateral Murder video. At that time also it became clear that Julian just decided not to negotiate or not to talk to anyone internally anymore. He became very un-transparent in the way that he was conducting deals with the media, forming new partnerships, involving new people, passing on very critical information to third parties against internal agreements – and the worst thing is that, whenever we asked him what agreements he was making, he refused to shed any light on that, and this is when it felt like it was getting a bit irresponsible because it’s all in the hands of one man. In 2010 there were quite a lot of mistakes that happened because it was all just focused on him, and if you try to address that for a couple of months – or more than half a year – and the only reaction you get is to be ignored and you are being told that you should never challenge leadership in a time of crisis, then that’s where it started to feel like it was heading in the wrong direction.

JS: Some people feel that Wikileaks is presenting a challenge to the so-called mainstream media, and perhaps some journalists are feeling a bit uncomfortable because they’re used to controlling information – or at least, being the arbiters of what information goes to the public. Do you think that Open Leaks is something that is a challenge to the mainstream media, or do you see yourself as a partner and, in a way, a conveyor belt of information to the media, where they can still provide their traditional role of assessing and analysing information?

DD-B: Well, I think Wikileaks in the beginning set out to be a partner, but also to be challenging, because it also set out to just publish information and avoid the gate-keeping role that the mainstream media plays in some fashion. But what we experienced rather quickly was that if you publish all this raw information, most people can’t use that anyway. So, there might be a small community of independent, intelligent people that have an interest in raw information and that can make use of such raw information – un-interpreted, but just hard facts – but that doesn’t go for the majority of people. The majority of people still need the mainstream media to introduce them to a topic, to put the document into a context, base a story around it, research – all of that. That’s where it became clear that Wikileaks could never exist without media cooperation because it doesn’t work. It’s not efficient. And that’s one of the lessons that we have carried into Open Leaks: that it is important that you intermesh; that you partner with organisations that can actually help you to maximise the impact of the material that is being sent in. You just have to make sure that it’s not just a few media outlets, and that’s why we are working with NGO’s and other organisations that have, let’s say, a non-profit, non-commercial [attitude] to the material.

JS: Some people have said: Who are Wikileaks, or anyone, for that matter, to decide what information should be released to the public and what information should be withheld? What’s your feeling about who should decide this, and on what basis they should make that decision?

DD-B: I think there is certainly the need for some information to remain private, and that goes especially for information that is just about private people – [information] that has no ethical or corrupt angle whatsoever; that is just about people’s health records, and stuff like that. On the other hand, I think there is also information in the political sphere that you do not have to publish. So, what I think, and this might be a very generic conclusion, is that there is a right to secrecy, and there is the same right to break that secrecy. And the decision [as to whether to publish information] has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. This is where I think it is important to have standards which organisations have developed over decades. Some of these might be more conservative, and others might be liberal or more radical, but there is a standard, and it is important to build on such existing standards and to diversify this whole [area of decision-making] rather than just putting that decision into the hands of one man. [That way] you will never come to a satisfying solution or a satisfying answer for all these questions.

JS: So, would it be fair to say that Open Leaks is striving to become a more transparent, more democratic, more collaborative effort than Wikileaks?

DD-B: Yes. We are trying to build a community, and we are trying to build a powerful community of existing organisations that we will enable to collaborate on material that is being sent in. We have built a mechanism that allows the source to control how the information flows in our system. So, if a source gives information [through Open Leaks] to a particular newspaper, he can specify that he wants it to remain there [for example] for two weeks or four weeks. And if the newspaper doesn’t act on this information and they do not create a story out of it it’s passed on to other organisations in the system. That ensures that you can avoid the gate-keeping that some media might be doing, but on the other hand you can still appeal to a medium’s interest to run a scoop. So, it is a trade-off: we’re empowering a source, and on the other hand we’re building a robust community of existing organisations that will hopefully very efficiently be able to work with that kind of material.

JS: You said recently that if there were sufficiently strong whistle-blowing laws, an organisation like Wikileaks, or Open Leaks, wouldn’t have to exist in the way it does at the moment.

DD-B: This is the precise problem we have. There is no regulation – at least in most places in the world – that is protecting whistle-blowers. So, the problem, the dilemma that we have, is that there is something that is a lawful wrong versus an unlawful right. This is a situation we have in a lot of places: you can know about something that is inherently unethical, but there is no law making this illegal. So, if someone now brings this [information] to light he might have the sympathy of the public but there is no law protecting him from being fired or never ever finding a job in the area he was working in. So, that person will not have a future any more, and probably will be struggling for the rest of his life to get his feet back on the ground – and that is because, first of all, we do not have laws protecting people who make public something that is illegal; and, even worse, we do not have protection so that people can bring something to the public that is unethical. So, this is where we need better regulation all over the world…because we do not have such laws, and as long as we do not have such laws we have to provide some anonymity to these people. It wouldn’t make any sense if we shut these people up just because there’s no way to protect them. And it would be great if a consequence of this whole transparency movement would be that we as a society acknowledged the value of whistle-blowers so strongly that we integrated them into what we protect at the core of society with strong laws and good regulation, rather than having them make use of anonymous platforms. After all, all these people, or most of them, are real heroes; and it’s really bad if these heroes have to exist in anonymity and cannot even get the recognition they deserve from society for telling [people] about something they should know about.

JS: Looking at Wikileaks to date, we’ve seen the Iraq war logs, the Afghanistan war logs, we’ve seen a great deal of information from the [US diplomatic] cables. How much of that information being in the public domain has made a significant difference? Obviously the Collateral Murder video and some of the other Iraq and Afghanistan information is very powerful, but isn’t there a danger that the public can just get swamped with that information – become almost inured to information which, if it was released selectively in the mainstream media from time-to-time, might make more of an impact?

DD-B: That’s exactly what I think. The problem is: it should be in the public [domain]. It should be accessible for all the people that want to read it, even if it’s just these few people that really have an interest independently in analysing such materials – there might be historians who want to use it; there might just be people in the social sciences writing papers, or whatever – this should be accessible to all these people. On the other hand, and this is what we see today, people are drowning in information, and most people are not ready yet for this amount of information. So, this is a societal need for change, for cultural change that we need in order to cope with the information society, because that’s what the information society will be like: we’ll have more information, and we will have to make judgments about that information, and we’ll have to say what is relevant to us and what isn’t. We’ll have to position ourselves. It’s something where we’ll need to have better education in the future – where people [will] need to understand how to approach that. But I would totally agree that what we have seen today is people being swamped by these big releases. There’s a release of 90,000 documents from Afghanistan, something like close to 400,000 I think for Iraq, and now 260,000 [US diplomatic] cables. So, who in hell – what ordinary person – would not be swamped by that, and in a position where he cannot make any judgments at all any more [about all this information]? And who is going to be interested in one small leak after this, because we’re being educated to have one world-record release after another? And that is where it’s important to work with the media, because that’s the media’s role: to put all of this information into a context, and to slowly put the reader close to that material and tell them the story about it, and [give] them the context and give them the perspective. And that’s how I think we can get more people involved in getting interested in the topics in the first place, and then eventually maybe having a look at the raw information.

JS: So, in a way, Open Leaks will be part of the clarification and sorting process. You’re taking information and maximising the value of that information as best you can.

DD-B: Yes. I think Wikileaks has triggered this cultural change. A Swiss newspaper put this very nicely. They said that every territory needs a visionary to conquer it, and, after the visionary, you need the engineers – and this is the stage that we are at right now. Julian Assange as the visionary behind Wikileaks, and Wikileaks, they have conquered this new territory. They have created a new movement, a cultural change, and now you need engineers that are coming up with very efficient solutions for all of that. And that’s basically what I think we are doing at Open Leaks.


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