What is Wikileaks?

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News

Wikileaks logo
Image caption,
Wikileaks has established a reputation for publishing sensitive materials

Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has dominated the news, both because of its steady drip feed of secret documents, but also because of the dealings of its enigmatic front man Julian Assange.

The recent release of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables is just the latest in a long list of "leaks" published by the secretive site, which has established a reputation for publishing sensitive material from governments and other high-profile organisations.

In October the site released almost 400,000 secret US military logs detailing its operations in Iraq.

They followed hot on the heels of nearly 90,000 classified military records, which gave an insight into the military strategy in Afghanistan.

And in April 2010, for example, Wikileaks posted a video on its website that shows a US Apache helicopter killing at least 12 people - including two Reuters journalists - during an attack in Baghdad in 2007.

A US military analyst is currently awaiting trial, on charges of leaking the material along with the cables and military documents.

However, the site's recent prominence is part of a longer and controversial history that started in December 2006, when it first hit the net.

Since that time it has split opinion.

For some it is lauded as the future of investigative journalism; it has been described as the world's first stateless news organisation.

For others - particularly the governments and corporations whose secrets it exposes - it is a risk.

In October 2009, it posted a list of names and addresses of people it claimed belonged to the British National Party (BNP). The BNP said the list was a "malicious forgery".

And during the 2008 US elections, it published screenshots of the e-mail inbox, pictures and address book of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Other controversial documents hosted on the site include a copy of the Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta, a document that detailed restrictions placed on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Many of these were uploaded to the website, which allows anyone to submit documents anonymously.

However, a team of reviewers - volunteers from the mainstream press, journalists and Wikileaks staff - decides what is published.

"We use advanced cryptographic techniques and legal techniques to protect sources," Mr Assange told the BBC in February.

The site says that it accepts "classified, censored or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic or ethical significance" but does not take "rumour, opinion or other kinds of first hand reporting or material that is already publicly available".

"We specialise in allowing whistle-blowers and journalists who have been censored to get material out to the public," said Mr Assange.

It is operated by an organisation known as the Sunshine Press and claims to be "funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public".

Since Wikileaks first appeared on the net, it has faced various legal challenges to take it offline. Prior to the most recent leaks, it said it had fought off more than 100 legal challenges successfully.

In 2008, for example, the Swiss bank Julius Baer won a court ruling to block the site after Wikileaks posted "several hundred" documents about its offshore activities. It was eventually overturned.

Money matters

But more recently, the site has faced new challenges.

The private life of Mr Assange, its editor-in-chief, has been laid bare and it has lost key staff and supporters.

The site has also been targeted in a series of cyber attacks. Various firms - including web giant Amazon - have also terminated agreements to host the site and provide services to it.

In addition, companies - including Mastercard, Visa and PayPal - have withdrawn the ability that allows people to donate to the site. Its Swiss bank account has also been closed.

But it is not the first time that the site has faced financial problems. In February 2010 it suspended operations as it could not afford its own running costs. Donations from individuals and organisations saved the site.

Only time will tell, if it can do it again with many sources of funding now cut off.

Despite all of these setbacks, Wikileaks has largely remained defiantly online. It has moved its operations between various companies and countries. It has also encouraged volunteers to set up "mirrors" of the site - hosted on different servers around the world.

"[To] keep our sources safe, we have had to spread assets, encrypt everything, and move telecommunications and people around the world to activate protective laws in different national jurisdictions," Mr Assange said earlier this year.

Throughout its history, the site has been supported and hosted by the Swedish ISP PeRiQuito (PRQ), which became famous for hosting file-sharing website The Pirate Bay.

"If it is legal in Sweden, we will host it, and will keep it up regardless of any pressure to take it down," the ISP's site says.

The ISP continues to host its most recent - and most controversial - documents.

The site also hosts documents in other jurisdictions, including France.

Its experience of different laws around the world meant that it was drafted to help Icelandic MPs draw up plans for its Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) earlier this year

The plan calls on the country's government to adopt laws protecting journalists and their sources.

Expansion plan

Its involvement in the IMMI gave the site a new credibility.

At the same time, it has grown and gained more notoriety.

The site's rapid expansion - and the amount of material it has recently received - has meant that it has had to change its tactics.

In the past, it was able to verify and publish documents itself.

But for its most recent leaks it has adopted a new tactic - partnering with news organisations such as the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times - to help check and distribute the material.

"We take care of the source and act as a neutral intermediary and then we also take care of the publication of the material whilst the journalist that has been communicated with takes care of the verification," Mr Assange said earlier this year.

"It provides a natural… connection between a journalist and a source with us in the middle performing the function that we perform best."

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