What does Wikileaks mean for the way we get information?

For now, let’s set aside the question of whether the 90,000-plus reports that the nonprofit leaked reveal any game-changing information. Let’s instead examine another intriguing aspect of this whole affair: the protection Wikileaks’ infrastructure affords whistleblowers and the group’s freedom from national boundaries, which offers its associates apparent freedom from political persecution.

Reporters have always had sources, many of whom need protecting. Investigative Fund reporter Aram Roston, who has plenty of experience in war reporting, cautions young reporters to take every precaution to protect one’s sources and fixers. “They are far easier to kill than you are,” he said in a telephone conversation. “You’ll leave. They’re still there. People in America don’t understand that.”

The Wikileaks whistleblowing model provides an additional layer of protection for sources who risk retaliation or criminal prosecution. Imagine what that could mean for a skittish government official in possession of important information to which the public should have access, but wary of being charged with endangering “national security.” Or a company employee with knowledge of management misconduct who is afraid of being fired. The protections offered by Wikileaks may be far more appealing to a potential whistleblower than the protections offered by a traditional media outlet.

In addition to providing new forms of safety for a source, Andrew Bacevich writes in The New Republic, Wikileaks could also influence who that source would be.

“The real significance of the Wikileaks action is of a different character altogether: it shows how rapidly and drastically the notion of “information warfare” is changing. Rather than being defined as actions undertaken by a government to influence the perception of reality, information warfare now includes actions taken by disaffected functionaries within government to discredit the officially approved view of reality. This action is the handiwork of subversives, perhaps soldiers, perhaps civilians. Within our own national security apparatus, a second insurgent campaign may well have begun. Its purpose: bring America’s longest war to an end. Given the realities of the digital age, this second insurgency may well prove at least as difficult to suppress as the one that preoccupies General Petraeus in Kabul.”

But the real game-changer is this: in the past, journalists and media outlets have been subject to the media laws of the countries in which they were based. Depending on where an article was published, concerns about libel laws, for instance, would vary greatly. If the government didn’t care for a newspaper or TV station, officials could simply threaten to shut it down, as recently happened with Fiji’s most popular newspaper, Fiji Times, because the military dictatorship felt that the media needed to “toe the line.”

But Wikileaks, as its twitter description says, is based “everywhere.” Which is to say, it is based nowhere. If its servers in one country are shut down, it can move its operations to a friendlier neighborhood. As Jay Rosen notes in a thought-provoking think piece on his website, Press Think, Wikileaks is

“the world’s first stateless news organization… Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”

Regular folks around the world seem to think that Wikileaks has a winning model. That’s why Wikileaks has received support from the general public, including journalists and human rights activists, to the tune of more than $1 million till date. Not a figure to scoff at for a start-up nonprofit. (Though Wikileaks has had its own troubles with fundraising, temporarily shutting down its site for a number of months while employees focused exclusively on raising capital.) It also receives aid from 800 part-time volunteers and a loose network of 70,000 “supporters.”

In sharing the Afghanistan reports with Der Spiegel, The New York Times and UK’s Guardian, Wikileaks also strengthened partnership possibilities between traditional media and nonprofit journalism outfits. As many page hits as this has generated for the three media outlets,Wikileaks needed them more. Its last attempt at shaking up the image of the U.S. government at war, the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, though much talked about, garnered far less attention from government officials. (In fact, the Wikileaks website was unable to handle the added attention the Afghan War Diary generated — its website crashed and was inaccessible on parts of Sunday and Monday.)

Not to mention the sheer slog of going through some 200,000 pages of raw information. “WikiLeaks was soaking, drowning in data,” Cognitive Surplus author Clay Shirky told David Carr at The New York TimesMedia Coder blog. “What they needed was someone who could tell a story. They needed someone who could bring accuracy and political context to what was being revealed.”

“In one sense, the carefully choreographed exercise represented a new kind of hybrid journalism,” Carr continued. “WikiLeaks was more than just a source, it was a publisher. And however it got the goods, WikiLeaks found willing collaborators in the mainstream eager to both compete on a big story and to serve their readers.”

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange explained the reasoning behind an organization like Wilikeaks.

“There is a legitimate role for secrecy, and there is a legitimate role for openness. Unfortunately, those who commit abuses against humanity or against the law find abusing legitimate secrecy to conceal their abuse all too easy. People of good conscience have always revealed abuses by ignoring abusive strictures. It is not WikiLeaks that decides to reveal something. It is a whistleblower or a dissident who decides to reveal it. Our job is to make sure that these individuals are protected, the public is informed and the historical record is not denied.”

Daniel Ellsberg, the defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, is impressed with the leaking of the Afghanistan reports and angered by the charges that Assange has endangered national security by the release of these documents. “When I hear these charges,” he told The Christian Science Monitor, “that it is irresponsible to have done this by [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange… I don’t think that charge comes very well from from people who are so irresponsible as to put our troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan.” In an interview with The Nation, he said that Assange “is serving our democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country.”

Here’s hoping that Wikileaks will encourage more whistleblowers to come forward. Here’s hoping for an Iraq War Diary. And an oil spill one. And Wall Street leaks. Here’s to the power of principled leaking.