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BERLIN, Germany — When WikiLeaks’ published the loan book of Iceland’s now-defunct Kaupthing Bank in July 2009, it was hardly famous.
But the 210 pages of documents exposed billions of dollars worth of loans the bank had made to its own executives, some of whom still face possible criminal charges.
The leak caught the interest of Herbert Snorrason, a 25-year-old Icelandic historian and activist who got in touch with WikiLeaks via a public chatroom. A few months later, he invited WikiLeaks representatives to a meeting of the Icelandic Digital Freedom Society, on whose board he sits.
The two people who turned up were Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German former hacker who, after Assange, was the most public face of WikiLeaks.
Snorrason joined the whistle-blower oufit and the rest, as they say, is history. In fact it is literally history for Snorrason and Domscheit-Berg. Tired of of Assange’s leadership and the group’s direction, they have now split off to create their own leaks website, claiming to have learned from what they deem WikiLeaks’ mistakes.
OpenLeaks, as it is called, is just one of many of web-based leaks organizations that has sprung up in recent months on the coattails of the famous original.
A group of former European Union officials and journalists have launched BrusselsLeaks, focusing on the EU’s secrets. Then there are various geographical sites, such as IndoLeaks, BalkanLeaks, TuniLeaks and the Czech Republic’s PirateLeaks.
But Snorrason and Domscheit-Berg’s WikiLeaks spin-off is, not surprisingly, getting the most attention and, given its provenance, starting out with the most credibility. Critically, they are changing WikiLeaks' model, most importantly not actually publishing documents but rather acting as a middleman.
“Our experience has been that the model that WikiLeaks has, which combines both the reception and the publication of documents within a single organization, is too much,” Snorrason said. “It is too much work, too much responsibility and ultimately too much power. It’s very hard to argue against the notion that WikiLeaks has a certain measure of political power at the moment.”
That power, he said, came to be disprortionately concentrated in Assange’s hands.
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Snorrason and Domscheit-Berg fell out with the Australian founder and frontman after Assange summarily suspended his German colleague from the group. Snorrason, who had been pushing for the structure of the organization to be more clearly defined, leapt to Domscheit-Berg’s defense.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Julian said to me, ‘I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, initial coder, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, you can piss off,'" Snorrason said. “My response was, ‘So be it.’ And I have not spoken with Julian Assange since.”
Domscheit-Berg told a recent Swedish television documentary that Wikileaks had become “too much focused on one person, and one person is always much weaker than an organization.”
Among other issues, the group's choice of documents and style of publication — most notably with the U.S. State Department cables — sparked accusations that WikiLeaks has an anti-American agenda. By contrast, OpenLeaks aims to be a mere pipeline.
“Our aim is to be as neutral as we possibly can and any decisions regarding what sort of information is sought after will have to lie with the organizations we work with,” Snorrason said.
Under OpenLeaks’ system, potential leakers will nominate a partner, such as a newspaper or non-governmental organization, to whom they want to give documents. They will put the documents in an OpenLeaks “dropbox” — a web file-hosting service — and OpenLeaks will then deliver the documents to the chosen newspaper or organization, who will decide if redactions are necessary and then publish them.
What OpenLeaks is offering the would-be leaker is anonymity. The recipient won’t know who the leaker is, nor will OpenLeaks. There will be no chain linking the source to the recipient — no emails, no phone calls, no communications.
“Our very purpose is to break that chain and making sure that the information [about the source’s identity] cannot be revealed because it simply is not known," Snorrason said. “We are providing a layer of indirection between the publisher and the source, which can help both the source and the publisher. The journalist cannot be compelled to reveal the source’s identity because they don’t know it.”
Bradley Manning, the U.S. Marine charged with leaking massive quantities of documents to WikiLeaks, appears to have been caught because he boasted to another former hacker, Adrian Lamo, during a web chat.
OpenLeaks aims to start testing its system around mid-January and hopes to be fully operational by the middle of the year. It has about a dozen volunteers spread around the world. Snorrason declined to say whether any are U.S.-based.
The United States is examining whether it can extradite Assange on charges related to the leaked State Department cables. OpenLeaks believes it has an extra layer of protection from such prosecution because it will never actually handle or even lay eyes on the documents it is passing from source to publisher.
The system could leave OpenLeaks vulnerable to the charge that it is shirking responsibility for the leaks and any consequences that may arise — that it actually has too little power rather than too much.
“That is a risk,” Snorrason said. “But I would like to point out the legal principle of a legal conduit and the protections given to parties such as telecommunications companies and the post office, which is that they do not have legal liability for the content that goes through their system.
“So if you send drugs through the post, the post system cannot be charged for possession and whether or not this principle directly applies to us, we believe we can make the argument that it should at least be something very comparable.”
Unlike the postal service, OpenLeaks has an agenda, even if it sticks to its avowed political neutrality: It believes there are too many secrets.
Snorrason, who speaks perfect English in slow, deliberate, carefully-chosen sentences, acknowledges there is some information that should never be made public: a private person’s medical records, for instance, or information that would unequivocally endanger lives.
But, “the problem we are facing at present is not that too many secrets are being published,” he said.
Despite his differences with Assange, Snorrason said the WikiLeaks founder, who is now in England fighting extradition to Sweden on sex-related criminal charges, has on the whole been good for democratic societies. At the very least, he has helped inspire a movement.
Some of the new leaks outfits will disappear without a trace, but there are people out there who will become long-term activists. What that means for governments and corporations will become clear in the coming years, Snorrason said.
“It’s quite hard to know," he said. "This is still history in the making.”