It had to happen. A website set up to encourage anonymous leaks of controversial government secrets has been exposed before its launch.
Government insiders around the world will be invited to use the site as cover to leak evidence of corruption and injustice. It is meant to be an adaptation of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, to encourage whistle-blowers to come forward.
Depending entirely on voluntary contributions for its content, http://www.wikileaks.org will officially go live in a few months: instead of the public submitting entries, it is asking officials to publish state documents.
“What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, Wikileaks can broadcast to the world," reads the answer to one of its Frequently Asked Questions.
"Wikileaks will be the outlet for every government official, every bureaucrat, every corporate worker, who becomes privy to embarrassing information which the institution wants to hide but the public needs to know."
However, the first major leak at Wikileaks was a textbook example of the viral, or word-of-mouth, marketing that sets the Web buzzing: the site itself was the target.
Wikileaks had, its developers said, wanted to maintain a low profile in its development stage. For example, the "adviser" who spoke to Reuters on behalf of the site did so on condition of anonymity.
But a blogger, John Young, blew the lid on the project.
Other bloggers and media including Time magazine have since exposed James Chen and Julian Assange, two of the project developers, in a cocktail of information and speculation that highlights the Web's perils for the factfinder.
Some bloggers have speculated the site could be a front for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Others just dismissed it as laughably amateurish.
If they were surprised, the site's developers did not seem concerned by the fact that they had been rumbled.
"This is clearly a project whose time has come because the response has been overwhelming and very positive," said the woman who contacted Reuters by phone, calling herself a member of the Wikileaks' advisory board.
Bravery in the whistle-blowers?
The website says it counts Chinese dissidents among its international team of founders, and some of its advisers are Russian and Tibetan refugees.
Despite the initial hitch, its developers say it will be secure and its contributors untraceable, allowing people to publicize wrongdoing without fear of being found out.
"We want to instill bravery in whistle-blowers," the Wikileaks adviser said. It says it has already received 1.2 million separate leaked documents.
If the site launches, it would not be the first time the Internet had been used by officials to draw attention to malfeasance.
Just last month, former Kenyan anti-corruption chief John Githongo posted an audio tape online that he said showed government ministers pressuring him to drop an investigation.
There are also established websites, such as John Young's http://cryptome.org and http://www.thesmokinggun.com, that feature potentially controversial documents.
However, Wikileaks says it wants to be a "central clearing house" for such leaks. And, taking to new heights the current Web vogue for crowd-sourcing -- encouraging users to contribute -- it says it will take a "democratic" approach to verifying the information.
Anyone will be able to comment on the importance -- and judge the authenticity -- of the whistle-blowers' submissions.
"Instead of a couple of academic specialists, Wikileaks will provide a forum for the entire global community to examine any document," it says.
The hope is that communities of experts will cluster around the site: "If a document is leaked from Somalia, the entire Somali refugee community can analyze it and put it in context."
Analysts say high standards will be needed to ensure documents on the site are not distortions of the truth or out-and-out lies -- a prospect raised by the anonymity granted to the sources.
"It's problematic because it's going to be the preferred cloak of a malicious person," said Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern at Work, an advocacy group for whistle-blowing in Britain.
The "democratic" vetting process may not help.
"Lots of people like a salacious rumor and may not care whether an expert thinks it's true or not, and it may cause substantial damage in the interim," said John Palfrey, a Harvard University professor specializing in international law.
Even if potential legal problems were addressed, Dehn said encouraging anonymity could have other harmful consequences.
Public debate might shift from the substance of the leak to the identity of the whistle-blower. "Whistle-blowing works when it is done openly," Dehn said. "That's what helps drive the accountability."
No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.