Journalists, Companies Wrestle With Consequences of WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks has raised a lot of questions, most of which have nothing to do with the stolen documents the organization leaked to the world. Julian Assange and his whistle-blowing organization have made many people question the notion of the press and wonder what implications these kinds of organizations have for businesses with confidential information. All these questions have spurred the American government to act.

In late 2010, legislation was proposed to make WikiLeaks illegal under the Espionage Act, banning the exposure of information affecting the War on Terror and making it illegal to publish the names of military or intelligence community informants. In February, Representative Peter King, R-N.Y., introduced the Shield Act to the House of Representatives. This is more than just a little problematic for those who consider WikiLeaks a legitimate new kind of journalism-such as Assange's defense team-especially in a country where freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution.

According to the WikiLeaks website, it is a "non-profit media organization," and those who work for the site are "journalists." A similar site, OpenLeaks, claims to be intent on making "whistleblowing safer and more widespread."

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Ken Doctor, media industry analyst at Outsell, Inc. and author of Newsonomics, isn't convinced that these whistle-blowing sites and journalism are one and the same, however. "WikiLeaks isn't journalism; it's a data site, with verbatim information. When journalistic entities, like the New York Times and the Guardian, write about and include data from WikiLeaks, in my opinion, that's journalism," says Doctor. "Journalism provides narrative, context, and provides meaning around the data, so of course, there's a key relationship there, but also an important distinction."

For many, including Doctor, WikiLeaks is not defined by what it says it is but by its actions and intentions. "Of course, WikiLeaks can call itself whatever it wants, and [the journalistic label] is certainly intended to prevent interference or prosecution," says Doctor. He isn't the only one skeptical about WikiLeaks' status as a journalistic endeavor.

In December 2010, during the height of the controversy, the former associate news editor of The Huffington Post, Larry Womack wrote on the online newspaper site, "One does not have to print every line of every page of every document to report even the most important news. All it takes is a bit of that hard work and common sense that seems so popular with ‘elitist overlords' and so unpopular with bloggers this week." But a common theme among whistle-blower sites themselves is the idea of "transparency"-the need to hold government and corporations accountable to the people they serve.

While Doctor, like other journalists, supports freedom of the press and the rights of the whistle-blower, he says that Assange's tactics do more harm than good and are morally unsound. Not everyone agrees, though.

On the other side of the issue are a group of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's faculty and professors who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama last December, urging him not to pass the legislation that would effectively make WikiLeaks illegal. The letter says, "Journalists have a responsibility to exercise careful news judgment when classified documents are involved, including assessing whether a document is legitimately confidential and whether there may be harm from its publication." The Columbia faculty members express their concern that this legislation would have serious implications for the future enforcement of or disregard for the freedom of the press.

The letter continues: "But while we hold varying opinions of WikiLeaks' methods and decisions, we all believe that in publishing diplomatic cables WikiLeaks is engaging in journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment.

Any prosecution of WikiLeaks' staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity."

"In terms of leaking legislation, it's all in the writing," says Doctor. "There's a critical distinction between the source of the information-the leaker-and journalists who write about it, and I'd hope that distinction is maintained, as the whole notion of leaking is argued through in the instant, digital age."
Even as legislators and journalists debate the high-minded ideals of freedom of the press, companies have to consider the implications that the presence of these whistle-blowing sites could have. The very nature of the information leaks has companies and corporations searching for new ways to secure documents. Jim McGann, vice president of information discovery at Index Engines, Inc., an enterprise discovery solutions company, says the way corporations are viewing
data storage and security is completely changing due to the WikiLeaks controversy.

"What we're seeing from our corporate clients is they're taking their policies in what they call ‘information governance' or ‘records management' more seriously than they ever have before," McGann says. The issues companies need to start seriously considering, according to McGann, are the implications of keeping certain data, the implications of getting rid of other data, and making data generally more secure. He says that the answer to this question is a revamp of how companies view and use their IT departments.

"It used to be that if you were on the IT or technology team, you were only really responsible for creating an environment in which people can create and share information, so you didn't care as much about the detail of the information. Documents and files were being created and you sorted, protected, and managed that information but you didn't really know the details of what was in there," says McGann.

Security policies were being created around the content of the information and, although IT staff members are responsible for ensuring the security of the information, they never knew the content of what they were protecting. "The game is changing for IT and it's becoming a bit more challenging. Knowledge is becoming key to enforcement of the policy," he says.

According to McGann, one of the main strategies companies are implementing is cooperation between all divisions of the company, particularly the technology and legal departments. Legal departments are asking IT departments about the information being stored in order to start making decisions and to enforce policies. Meanwhile, IT doesn't have information about the content of the data.

"It's a bit of a tug-of-war between IT and legal," says McGann. "The key is implementing discovery tools to be able to discover and report on that content, and that's really what's happening right now. It sounds like an easy task but because of such a great volume of data, making that discoverable is the challenge."

It still remains to be seen how the proposed legislation, if passed, would effect not only WikiLeaks but also long-standing media outlets and whistle-blowers with legitimate grievances to air. Will people with information to share be hesitant to approach even reputable news outlets? Will news outlets be more cautious about what they publish? These are questions that even WikiLeaks doesn't have the answers to.