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Editor’s Note: Encyclo has not been regularly updated since August 2014, so information posted here is likely to be out of date and may be no longer accurate. It’s best used as a snapshot of the media landscape at that point in time.

WikiLeaks is a nonprofit website dedicated to leaking sensitive documents.

WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 by an international group of activists that included Julian Assange, the site’s current editor.

WikiLeaks is funded by anonymous private donors and does not accept government or corporate funding. The site temporarily shut down in early 2010 while asking for donations to cover its $600,000 annual budget, then did so again in late 2011 after several financial companies blocked many of its donations. It was reported to be close to running out of money in mid-2012 and ultimately received only $68,000 in donations in 2012, against $507,000 in expenses. In October 2012, it charged for access to a leak of U.S. presidential campaign documents. Later that year, a group named the Freedom of the Press Foundation formed with the goal of serving as a conduit for donations to WikiLeaks and other journalistic groups focused on government transparency.

Despite its name, WikiLeaks is not run as a wiki. The site has a few full-time staff members and numerous other contributors to verify and contextualize leaks. It is supposedly run in conjunction with a nine-member advisory board, though several board members have said they were unaware they were on it. The site has multiple servers around the world, with its primary server in Sweden, where journalists are prevented by law from revealing anonymous sources.

The site has posted more than a million leaked documents and videos, including a 2007 video of civilians being killed in the Iraq War, a Guantanamo Bay manual, a report revealing corruption in Kenya, and the so-called “Climategate” emails. In 2010, the site made four major releases: a video of military forces killing civilians in Iraq, documents on the war in Afghanistan, documents on the war in Iraq, and several thousand classified American diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks released the remainder of those diplomatic cables in 2011 after they were inadvertently made public online. The source of those four releases, U.S. Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, was held for more than three years before being convicted in July 2013 of several charges including theft and violating the Espionage Act, though she was acquitted of a more serious “aiding the enemy” charge. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison for the leaks.

The site has also leaked other documents since then, including more than 2 million Syria-related emails in 2012. In 2013, it released a searchable database of 1.7 million already-public U.S. diplomatic cables from the 1970s.

WikiLeaks has been described as a successor to traditional accountability and investigative journalism. Its stated goal is to publish documents “alleging government and corporate misconduct,” and Assange has said that he sees his organization working to fill the gaps where journalists are either unable or unwilling to publish leaked information. He has also said he considers himself an advocate at least as much as a journalist.

WikiLeaks has had exclusivity deals with media organizations in several countries, including Germany, and receives occasional legal assistance from several American news organizations. The site has also considered auctioning stories off to news outlets.

Numerous governments and private organizations have attempted to investigate or censor WikiLeaks, including the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center, the British Ministry of Defence, the Swiss bank Julius Baer, and the Church of Scientology. WikiLeaks was working in early 2010 with the government of Iceland to establish the strongest source protection and freedom of speech laws in the world. The U.S. government has classified WikiLeaks as an enemy of the state. The FBI continued to investigate WikiLeaks through 2013, including infiltrating the group through a paid informant working as a volunteer, though the U.S. Department of Justice had reportedly decided not to prosecute Assange by late 2013.

WikiLeaks was approved in 2013 as a political party in Australia, where Assange is running for senate in fall 2013 elections.

WikiLeaks has been criticized by some traditional journalists for not vetting sources thoroughly enough and for its editorial selection of published leaks. It has also drawn criticism for its own secrecy and for copyright violation. After Assange’s arrest and incarceration for sexual assault accusations in Sweden, WikiLeaks slowed its publication and released less consequential leaks, leading some observers to suggest the site is in a state of decline.

In July 2012, WikiLeaks took responsibility for a hoax involving a fake New York Times column alleging that companies had blocked payments to it because of pressure from the U.S. government.

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Primary author: Mark Coddington. Main text last updated: December 5, 2013.
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