Wikileaks.org is currently experimenting with the economics of information disclosure. As of January 21, the site was offline, soliciting donations that will assist its operators to continue to provide service. That service, of course, is the coordinated disclosure of secret information that once belonged to governments, corporations, and other organizations, and the subsequent efforts to ensure that this information remains public.
When discussing the Wikileaks operational suspension, it is clear to see that there can be both positive and negative aspects to such a disclosure policy. This is to be expected — information disclosure is a risk decision, and as with all risk decisions, there are issues of risk tolerance and risk acceptance that differ among organizations. How Wikileaks chooses to approach information handling and disclosure should give some insight into their motivations and direction. But it is especially interesting to see some of the economic factors behind Wikileaks, some of their operational challenges, and what kinds of risks they are preparing to face.
A Disclosure Business Model
First, Wikileaks has aligned themselves with journalists as a primary means of revenue and disclosure. According to Wikileaks spokesperson Julian Assange, journalists are very interested in the kinds of exclusive content that can be brokered to them by the site, and news organizations are donating the services of their lawyers to defend their disclosures from legal challenges. Journalism is investing heavily in Wikileaks’ success, and as a primary consumer of their content, their motivations and activities can help identify what content is of primary interest to Wikileaks.
Second, Assange cites a need for more human processing of collected documents. The amount of source material must be processed and sorted, and these efforts scale with the size of the incoming queue. People are relied upon to manage the content, and this effort must by default not be publicly sourced — if it were, then the information might leak before Wikileaks can capitalize on the exclusivity it offers to the journalists involved. Therefore, the human processors must be compensated by Wikileaks (though not necessarily monetarily) and trusted not to disclose in a manner counter to the aims of the organization. This would also mean not informing the government or organization from which the information came that a leak had occurred.
Finally, Wikileaks offers incentives to those who provide information to them. As information brokers, Wikileaks assumes risks (such as legal challenges) and they recognize that those individuals who are bringing information to them have risks of their own. Motivating their sources by enabling their content to be widely publicized helps Wikileaks to ensure that sources can assume the often significant risks associated with bringing information to light.
What This Means
Every organization is different, but some common threads may persist among those examining Wikileaks from the outside. Foremost among concerns might be that there is a public market established for releasing secrets through the news media. While in the case of Wikileaks this is likely restricted to unethical behavior, it is up to Wikileaks to determine what they deem unethical, and to the news organizations that they share it with to determine what angle is taken when the story is reported. Certainly this market is not limited to one website, although it may be the most public of its kind. Organizations should be aware that there are a variety of entities that would be interested in their secrets.
Then there is the concern of the site’s appeal to sources that bring information forward. In the case of ethical violations, it may not be necessary to give incentives in exchange for the publication of secrets, but this may be an area where organizations can do more to protect themselves. Organizations that offer anonymous avenues to report ethical violations to an internal team that is empowered to take corrective action may be protecting themselves from damaging public relations problems. Ensuring that employees are aware not only of the presence of such a team, but perhaps even the outcomes of internal investigations may reinforce the perception that the organization is self-policing. If outcomes are fair and relatively transparent, employees may feel that there is no need to take information to the public to see corrections instituted.
Last but not least, Wikileaks seems heavily dependent upon journalists from traditional media organizations to maintain operations, especially in the face of legal challenges. If the downward trend in the state of traditional media profits continues, there may be a reduction or elimination of this business model for the site. It could mean that another site, perhaps one with less ethical compunction, arises to take its place in the market. Organizations should be aware of the landscape of disclosure brokers such as Wikileaks, and keep an eye open for changes in this marketplace; some may arise with less moral grounds than Wikileaks, creating a market that is much more hostile to any secrets, ethical or otherwise.