Some people seem to be taking seriously a proposal to crowd-source a $2,147,483,647 donation to WikiLeaks if it can leak details on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
It's certainly a plan with noble intentions — it would be a leak almost on the scale of Edward Snowden — but there's a huge problem with it, which we'll get to in a bit.
First, some background. The average person may not have heard of the TPP, a proposed free trade agreement under negotiation by Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. Experts believe it will be very important. Ian Bremmer has called it "most important trade agreement on the world agenda right now," for example, pointing out that almost 40 percent of world GDP would be involved in the deal.
However, critics have two major concerns about the TPP. The first argument is that TPP's intentions are far more radical than most realize, with lobbyists pushing an agenda that would suit the globalization aims of multinational corporations, not the average person — in particular with restrictive intellectual property laws.
The second concern is that the process is being conducted in secret, and the public is being left in the dark — as Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing points out, it's a deal "negotiated in utmost secrecy, without public participation, whose text is still not public." That a deal of this magnitude is being conducted in secret is understandably worrying, and there have been some leaks, but the full text of the proposed agreement remains out of the hands of the public.
This is where Just Foreign Policy, who describe themselves as an "independent and non-partisan membership organization dedicated to reforming U.S. foreign policy," come in. The group are apparently behind a new website offering a crowd-funded reward to WikiLeaks if they leak the entire TPP agreement.
The idea is that by giving the money to WikiLeaks rather than an individual leaker, the leaker cannot be accused of leaking for private profit (and should, hopefully, be a bit more protected from legal prosecution). Also, by crowdsourcing the money (and limiting the donations to less than $250 per individual), the group says they are able to "promote the idea we are all invested in the outcome of these negotiations."
Understandably, the plan has attracted some attention, making its way to the front page of Reddit and being widely shared on Twitter. But — here comes the bad part — the way the plan has been implemented is laughably flawed.
The biggest problem is most basic. The website is asking only that users "pledge" to donate that money if the TPP deal is leaked. There's no guarantee whatsoever that you actually have to pay that money, so already the final figure is going to be a bit suspect. What's worse, is that the website doesn't actually require a valid name or email address to donate. Hence, I was just able to pledge $250 as "Guy Incognito" with some phony email address. Anyone can do this.
There are plenty of great ways to argue that leaking the text of the TPP would be a good thing to do, but unfortunately, no matter how noble this plan is, it's incredibly flawed. The best we can hope for from this current plan is that it raises awareness of a serious issue.
We've reached out to both WikiLeaks and Just Foreign Policy to comment on the website, and will update if/when they respond.
UPDATE: Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy has emailed to say that the group has been working to remove bogus pledges (the number on the site now appears to be down to a more reasonable number). "We aren't a rich organization," he explained, "and we used the platform that we have, which means that we have to take its tools as a constraint."
Naiman also said that he was aware that pledges may not be fulfilled, and that they had avoided third party platforms (such as Kickstarter) as they did not want to embroil them in any potential legal action. "If we find ourselves in the position that we have to try to collect on the pledges, it will mean that someone leaked the TPP to WikiLeaks, so that will be a delightful problem to have," he wrote. "We might not be able to collect every pledge. But I'm confident that if WikiLeaks publishes the TPP text, donations to WikiLeaks will come streaming in."
"Our goal is to publicize to the public the fact that the controversial TPP text is being kept secret from public scrutiny. If our website is succeeding in calling attention to that, our website is working," Naiman added.
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