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OpenLeaks: The potential problem with a rising Wikileaks competitor

Former key figures behind the secrets-spilling website Wikileaks have split off and are preparing their own, new website called OpenLeaks, which is expected to launch Monday.

The ex-Wikileaks figures reportedly were frustrated with the group's leader, Julian Assange, and his apparently autocratic behavior.

The group behind OpenLeaks says it'll be different from Wikileaks in one major way: it will only act as an online collection point for confidential documents. It will then partner with media and nonprofit groups who will access their database and will be able to report, fact-check and write about the documents.

But is there a problem with this set up, at least in the context of U.S. laws and the presumed rights of publishers to freely publish classified information? (See this Congressional Research Service report on the topic.)

If OpenLeaks doesn't actually act as a publisher, can it be afforded the rights due to a free press? It sounds like it will become a repository for classified and confidential documents, but will its legal right to behave in such a manner actually put it in a weaker position than Wikileaks?

Say what you will about Wikileaks, but Assange's argument is that the group is indeed a publisher and entitled to hold and disclose documents under freedom of the press protections.

The State Department, however, says it believes that Assange and Wikileaks are not in the business of journalism, and thus not entitled to protections. Imagine what the State Department will think of OpenLeaks.

Will OpenLeaks be entitled to "freedom of the press" protection -- at least in the United States -- if it's not actually publishing? Or will it be easier for the U.S. Justice Department to make the claim that OpenLeaks is not a publisher and thus, illegally holding and maintaining classified government documents?

UPDATE: 2:55 p.m.

I've had a chance to clarify and expand upon my thinking about OpenLeaks and I have another point to add: what is the value proposition of OpenLeaks to the leaker/source?

With Wikileaks, if you have authentic, meaningful documents, the site has a proven track record of posting them without a filter. People get to see the documents themselves and journalists can refer to them. But the source material is made public without a filter. This is a revolution for traditional media, and one that frightens many people -- but it democratizes information.

Now take OpenLeaks. OL will apparently act as a middle man, a conduit, a trafficker and repository of sensitive information, but it will NOT be a publisher. Instead, it will allow for essentially traditional media and other orgs (i.e., NGOs) to engage in publishing.

But from the view of a leaker, the person who is putting his/her life on the line, which site is more attractive to you? Wikileaks, with its publish-it-all mentality -- or OpenLeaks, which invites traditional journalists (who many believe their slacking is part of the problem these days) to filter the leaks.

If I were a leaker, I'd choose Wikileaks, hands down.

This isn't to say Wikileaks doesn't have its organizational problems and challenges with Julian Assange, as its charismatic and reportedly autocratic leader. But Wikileaks is taking the risk of publishing, and not introducing an intermediary.

See this Ars Technica piece and the ensuing comments for more debate:

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