The Wall Street Journal has gone into competition with WikiLeaks. They just launched the web site Safehouse where they are soliciting secrets that would ostensibly expose fraud and abuse. The site asks visitors to send in “newsworthy contracts, correspondence, emails, financial records or databases from companies, government agencies or non-profits.”
The interesting thing about this is that it puts the Wall Street Journal in the position of emulating an avowedly anarchist enterprise. I happen to believe that WikiLeaks serves a useful purpose by promoting transparency in public institutions, despite their controversial tactics. There is a role for that in the media as well, but the tactical approach should be consistent with the standards of journalistic ethics.
In that regard the Journal ought not to be encouraging people to break the law. And that is, in effect, what they are doing. The contributions they are seeking are likely to be private materials that are proprietary and confidential. By providing these materials to the Journal, the sources are exposing themselves to legal liabilities. The Journal implies that submissions can be made anonymously, but a reading of the terms of service reveals that the Journal “cannot ensure complete anonymity” and that it “does not make any representations regarding confidentiality.”
In addition, the terms of service, to which you are assumed to have agreed, stipulate that your use may not “violate laws, regulations or rulings, infringe upon another person’s rights, or violate the terms of this Agreement.” Consequently, after taking the risk of providing the data, the Journal sets you adrift legally by holding themselves harmless in the event that your disclosures were unlawful. And to drive home that point they state explicitly that “Dow Jones is not responsible to you in any way for any loss, damage, civil claims, criminal charges, or injury that result, directly or indirectly, from your use of SafeHouse.” So they get all the benefit, but you take all the risk.
It is that sort of disclaimer that differentiates Safehouse from WikiLeaks. Anything you provide to WikiLeaks is completely anonymous without your having to request it. The ghostly, non-profit site exists in a quasi-legal state that protects whistle-blowers without disclaimers and exceptions. The Wall Street Journal exists to make money and spread the rightist ideology of its owner, Rupert Murdoch. That makes dealing with Safehouse a precarious proposition.
Other news organizations are already entering this field. The New York Times and Washington Post are said to have projects in the works. al-Jazeera has already launched its Transparency Unit, which has none of the conditions of Safehouse. Therefore, there are far better options for nervous whistle-blowers than the one offered by the Journal. And remember, the Journal is part of a media empire that includes disreputable outfits like Fox News, the New York Post, and the Times of London.
I would be wary of trusting the Journal in any case due to the general hostility of the right toward WikiLeaks, whom many on the right regard as agents of espionage. There are conservatives who have publicly called for the execution of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder. The possibility of the Journal’s editors taking your data and turning you in is not difficult to imagine. With all of their legalese drafted to protect themselves, it doesn’t seem like a particularly safe house.
[Update] Due to the universally negative reception for Safehouse, the Wall Street Journal was forced to issue a press release in response. It said in part…
Obviously protecting their sources is not their number one priority because in the sentence just prior they admit that the reservation of “certain rights” takes precedence over the protection of sources. And exercising those rights puts the source at risk. So unless you have some perverse desire to be ratted out, arrested, or sued, stay as far away from this un-Safehouse as possible.