A scrappy Web site that’s built a reputation for taking on Goliath-sized corporate and government corruption is now fighting a holy war over copyright infringement.
Wikileaks.org — a watchdog Web site that leaks corporate and government documents — hasn’t officially launched, yet it has already uncovered human rights violations in China, claimed to have swayed Kenya’s elections and exposed the inner workings of Guantanamo Bay.
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Founded in December 2006, Wikileaks boasts of an archive of 1.2 million released documents, sent in by thousands of sources and posted so the public can help debunk, verify or publicize them.
The site is run by a scattered worldwide community of journalists, activists and Chinese dissidents and funded mainly by “people who have made a lot of money in the Internet boom,” according to Wikileaks advisory board member and unofficial spokesman Julian Assange.
Still technically in “beta” or testing mode, the group has taken the “Wiki” name, but it has no connection to the popular on-line Wikipedia encyclopedia, having borrowed only on its open-editing format, which allows users to submit and edit entries.
In March, the site published a document detailing behind-the-scene workings of the Church of Scientology: a 612-page manual commonly refered to as the secret “bible” of Scientology, containing writings by L. Ron Hubbard on the eight different Operating Thetan levels, a basic principal of the religion.
The public had never seen the entire document before it appeared on Wikileaks; the church views them as secret and had sued CNN and Time for releasing small parts of them in the past.
Three weeks after posting the manual, Wikileaks received a notice from the Church of Scientology warning that the material was copyrighted and that the Web site was infringing upon the church’s intellectual-property rights.
Wikileaks refused to take down the documents. And soon after, Sunshine Media, which operates the site, released a statement saying that Scientology is a “cult” that “aids and abets a general climate of Western media self-censorship.”
Church of Scientology International spokeswoman Karin Pouw wrote in an e-mail to FOXNews.com: “I can only assume that religious bigotry and prejudice is driving their activity, as there is no altruistic value in posting our copyrighted scriptures, despite Wikileaks’ self-serving statements to the contrary.
“Posting entire books and hundreds of pages of published works is not ‘Sunshine Policy’ but wholesale copyright infringement.”
Assange said the reaction to the Scientology leak took people at Wikileaks by surprise.
“We thought it was a small issue, and our normal fare is government corruption and military secrets, so it seemed that this nutty religion organization was pretty inconsequential in terms of what we normally do,” he said in a telephone call from London.
“But after receiving these legal threats from them … it was time for us to make a stand.”
In mid-April, Wikileaks took on the Mormon Church, releasing the secret version of the Handbook of Instructions for the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
The materials, not available even to most Mormons, included information on how the church hierarchy deals with matters of discipline, excommunication and apostasy.
The church issued legal warnings demanding that the information be taken down, and even sent threats to the Wikimedia Foundation — the not-for-profit that operates Wikinews and Wikipedia — for linking to the material in a WikiNews article.
LDS church spokesman Michael Purdy wrote in an e-mail that there is nothing particularly newsworthy in the material and said it is used as “a reference guide to assist local Church leaders in managing Church affairs.
“However,” he wrote, “the material is copyrighted. Copyright infringement is a concern for many organizations.”
The Wikimedia Foundation — which has no relation to the watchdog group — removed the documents. Wikileaks refused.
Wikileaks is no stranger to legal tussles; it says it thrives on them, mainly because the First Amendment makes it nearly bulletproof in the U.S.
In March, after the group leaked documents that purportedly showed that Swiss bankers Julius Baer & Co. helped customers launder money illegally through the Cayman Islands, a U.S. federal judge ruled that efforts to shut down the site violated constitutional rights to free speech.
In China, the government bans Wikileaks outright, forcing the Web site to adopt an array of shifting aliases so that Chinese Internet users can access it.
If it were to come to a legal battle in the U.S. with either the Scientologists or the Mormons, Columbia University intellectual-law professor Jane Ginsburg said, Wikileaks likely would claim strong protections under U.S. fair-use laws, which give leeway for whistle-blowing groups that use even copyrighted materials to back up their claims of corruption or abuse.
So far, neither religious group has taken its copyright complaint to the courts.
“I suspect the Mormons are smart enough not to take the next step,” Assange said.
But Assange said if they do move forward, Wikileaks would welcome a lawsuit.
“The lawsuits validate the documents we released and bring attention to other people who are revealing incriminating information about these or other organizations,” he said.
“It also brings further attention to our organization as a whole, and it’s possible to create a situation where the lawsuit itself brings out the material in public and is a revealer of truth.”
In September 2007, the site published evidence of massive corruption in the Kenyan government prior to the country’s national elections, a move the group said may have helped shape the election’s outcome. In November 2007, it released day-to-day operating instructions for the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay. And in February 2008, it revealed that U.S. forces in Iraq were permitted to pursue enemies into Syria and Iran, prompting a warning from Tehran to Washington.
While some have voiced concerns about the authenticity of the documents on Wikileaks, the site says it has a vetting process that has resulted in very few fakes. “We’ve had maybe seven or eight altogether,” Assange said.
He said that if a trusted source sends in a document, it’s likely go up immediately. New or unknown sources will find their materials reviewed by some of the site’s 1,200 volunteers and 30 core members, who judge the documents on their relevance, probable validity, whether they’re verifiable, the likely motivations of the leakers, and other factors.
Some have called the group’s decision to leak sensitive material dangerous and irresponsible, particularly when it involves U.S. military strategy. Others say Wikileaks sometimes falls short — not in identifying and distributing sensitive material — but in interpreting it.
“I’ve noticed the analysis of the leaks isn’t always 100 percent accurate,” said Erin Halasz, a journalism graduate student at Northwestern University who created a supportive blog about Wikileaks for a class project.
But the group defends its motives, saying that exposing secret information empowers people, as in the case of the Mormon Church document.
“The document is not available to the public or to women in the Mormon church. In fact, a number of Mormon women wrote us describing how happy they were to see this information listed,” Assange said.