William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for July 2010

WikiLeaks: No Wiki, Just Leaks

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on July 31, 2010 at 8:55 pm

The website called WikiLeaks makes waves every few months, but never more than now that it has released 90,000+ classified U.S. military documents from the war in Afghanistan, which the site has called the Afghan War Diary. It’s become one of the biggest news stories of the summer, or at least one of the biggest legitimate news stories (cough, ahem). Aside from what the documents reveal (or maybe don’t) and their implications for U.S. policy, the release itself is an interesting subject, especially as compared to its nearest historical precedent.

When the classified documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers were first revealed in June 1971, the first stories about it ran in the New York Times, and only following an internal debate about the legal propriety of doing so. When the U.S. government predictably sued, the Washington Post started its own series based on the documents, and quickly faced the same injunction. By the end of the month — and we think things happen quickly these days — the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the injunctions were unconstitutional, and the rest is history.

What the Afghan War Diary lacks in public drama it more than makes up for in zeitgeist, with its decentralized, asymmetric, non-state method of publication. Rather than going to the press, the leaker gave them to WikiLeaks, a website based in Sweden, supported by anonymous donors and run (or at least repped) by a somewhat unusual fellow named Julian Assange.

But I’m compelled to point out, as the title of my post indicates, that despite running on the same software as Wikipedia and using the word “wiki” in its name, WikiLeaks is not a wiki. This screen cap below, featuring just a portion of the website’s front page, illustrates my point:

wikileaks-website-small
Click on image to view full-size

If you’re familiar with Wikipedia (and I suspect you are) then you’ll notice the website is based on the same MediaWiki software as Wikipedia. Unlike Wikipedia, it does not acknowledge the fact. Although it’s free software, the terms of its Creative Commons license are such that one needs to give credit where due. At least WikiLeaks is consistently mysterious, not to mention contraband.

More to the point, look at the tabbed links to pages above the site banner. On Wikipedia, this is where you would see the following links: Page (article content), Discussion (where to talk about the article), Edit (what it sounds like) and History (a list of all edits to the article) and a few others, including a link to log in or create an account. WikiLeaks is a bit different: there are only three such links. Most strikingly, there are no options to contribute or create an account. The discussion page is there, but you aren’t invited to participate. (Note that on Wikipedia, in most cases, one need not even register to contribute.) And for what it’s worth, there isn’t even a history page available, so there is no way to see what changes may have been made to the page since it was first posted. That’s a wiki? Yes, there is a link to submit documents for review, but that’s the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) model. I suppose ILDb just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Just in case you’re rusty on the concept, or are the sort of person who wouldn’t know Ward Cunningham from Larry Sanger, here are a few handy definitions:

  • Dictionary.com: A collaborative Web site set up to allow user editing and adding of content
  • Simple English Wikipedia: A wiki is a type of website that lets anyone create and edit its pages.
  • Wiktionary: A collaborative website which can be directly edited using only a web browser, often by anyone with access to it.

The WikiLeaks FAQ makes it very clear that no open editing is to be found on this site:

Who writes WikiLeaks leaked document summaries?
WikiLeaks staff, sometimes in collaboration with the submitter. Historically, most summaries were written by Julian Assange.

And another:

Can random people edit WikiLeaks documents?
No. Source documents are kept pristine.

Of course this makes perfect sense, given the website’s stated mission. But it also makes it, you know, not a wiki.

Not only is the name misleading, but it’s my (purely speculative) opinion that the site was so named to borrow from the credibility enjoyed (and earned) by Wikipedia. Being a website created with the purpose of disclosing material previously regarded as secret, frequently concerning the security interests of nation states, WikiLeaks self-consciously associated itself with the only non-profit to be found among the top 10 global websites. The name recalls Wikinews, Wikibooks, Wikisource and other projects of the Wikimedia Foundation. Let’s be clear: it is most certainly not. I’d think Wikipedia might even have a legal case to make against WikiLeaks, although it would surely be the least of the website’s legal problems.

If there is a silver lining in all this, perhaps it lies in the implication that the word “wiki” has come to denote something like “openness” and “fairness” and “democracy” to a worldwide audience of Internet users. ILDb really wouldn’t be the same. To have your name become shorthand for such an inchoate but positive concept is obviously a good thing in itself, and quite an accomplishment. But it also means, as WikiLeaks shows, that someone out there is going to bite your style.

Update: In the comments below, a reader suggests that WikiLeaks did, for a time, allow outside contributors as a traditional wiki would. That seems to indicate my speculation above is off-base, although it’s probably still true that WikiLeaks took inspiration from Wikipedia.