What is the market for scandal? In less than a year, WikiLeaks has released hundreds of thousands of classified documents while its frontman Julian Assange became embattled in a sex scandal, was arrested, and faced extradition from Sweden. The site's secret-document dumps have spawned contentious political debates, international nail-biting, and near-daily headlines.
All that buzz has been a boon for small business. Hundreds of online pop-ups have emerged, peddling their Wiki-wares to the site's band of loyal followers. Many see the site as purely political; others see it as purely profitable. Here's how a few clever marketers are tapping the wallets of WikiLeaks's band of loyal followers (and even more loyal loathers), creating a multimillion-dollar market steeped in international secrets, hacking, espionage, and baby clothing.
1. Put it on a t-shirt, skateboard, or doggie sweater.
Since WikiLeaks hit the headlines, vendors have been uploading new Assange- and state-secrets-themed products daily to Zazzle.com, an e-commerce site based in San Jose, California. Products on the site, which is an open marketplace for designers and small businesses, range from the fairly traditional (buttons, T-shirts, sweatshirts) to the downright droll (dog sweaters, onesies, skateboards).
Among the 36 billion items for sale on Zazzle, those riffing on WikiLeaks are performing among the best. Michael Karns, the director of marketing for the site, says that there are at least 1,000 WikiLeaks products on the site, and they are selling fast.
"It's just incredibly popular," he says. And in a time when most search terms are typically reserved for Christmas-present ideas, Karns explains that WikiLeaks is giving the traditional vendors a run for their money. "Maybe people are giving WikiLeaks products as Christmas gifts."
Most of the products online right now seem to be positive towards WikiLeaks, but from his experience, Karns notes that backlash can overtake an original trend before you can say "diplomatic cables." Some sellers have begun to put the word "espionage" under Assange's face in screen-printed designs, which Karns notes is becoming popular.
2. Create a rival, or just squat on e-real estate.
Domain names are 21st century real estate, says Warren Adelman, the president and chief operating officer of Go Daddy, an Arizona-based domain name service that ranked No. 8 on the 2004 Inc. 500.
It stands to reason, then, that WikiLeaks-related websites—some legitimate content hubs, some little more than an attempt to generate ad revenue from URL typos—have also been an inevitable product of recent media attention. "In the past few months, we've started seeing an increase in the number of domain names with the word 'wiki' and 'leaks' in them," says Adelman. The site, which claims to register a domain name every second of every day is also hosting about 10 auctions right now for WikiLeaks-themed domains, with an average starting bid of around $5,000 each.
Jeremiah Johnston, the chief operating officer of Sedo, an open online marketplace provider for domain names with more than one million users worldwide, says his company has seen a similar spike in interest. More than 70 different WikiLeaks-themed domains have been tagged for sale on the site since the drama began to unfold, he says.
During any type of political or social event, entrepreneurs and opportunists rush to snatch up sites with urls relevant to the issue. "We always see a spike in activity," Johnston says. Though many of these sites will probably never achieve long-term profitability, typos can be lucrative, at least in the short term. For example, WikiLeaks.com—the actual site is a dot-org—is ranked at No. 1,370 in U.S. popularity, according to Alexa, a site that offers free website traffic metrics.
3. Build useful privacy apps.
Personal privacy topped the American political zeitgeist during the Bush-era War on Terror, and is right back there again thanks to WikiLeaks. Whisper Systems, a company founded by a developer who goes by the name Moxie Marlinspike, created two Android apps that premiered in late June, RedPhone 0.3 and TextSecure 0.5. The RedPhone application facilitates encrypted conversations between Android users. The TextSecure app offers dual-encrypted SMS messanging transmission. The apps are currently free for individuals to download and are fee-based for corporate licensing.
And after the leaking of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, online stealth is en vogue. Applications such as VaporStream, an e-mail system that thoroughly erases notes after they are read. Other developers are creating open-source apps to transmit larger amounts of peer-to-peer personal data. Nadim Kobeissi, a student at Concordia University in Montreal, is the creator of Cryptbin, which is essentially a drop box with "state-of-the-art encryption," he says. "The nice thing about Cryptbin is that you can host it yourself, you can check the code. It's a tiny, tiny program that you can host on any Web server. Small groups can set up their own Cryptbin servers, [and] they can use the current Cryptbin server which is available online [that] allows anyone with very limited computer knowledge to share private information securely."
Although the apps from both developers were created before the onslaught of mainstream media attention surrounding WikiLeaks, they do see an opening in the market for privacy related applications. "I think maybe WikiLeaks is part of a larger shift in consciousness. For instance, if you look five years ago, no one really talked about Google in the context of privacy, and now this is something that comes up again and again and again because people are beginning to realize just how much information is being collected and just how much is being monitored," says Marlinspike.
4. Write all about it.
You didn't think a prominent scandal would come to pass without a big book deal or two, did you? Less than a week after the arrest of Assange, Scribe Publications has acquired the rights to Inside WikiLeaks: My Time Inside the World's Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former Assange accomplice at WikiLeaks and founder of the just-launched rival whistleblower site OpenLeaks.org.
In addition, many writers are capitalizing on the bonanza by publishing their texts online as part of Amazon.com's self-publishing program. For $9.90, one can download titles such as Julian Assange: The Whistleblower. Traitor or Hero? along with several other similarly named titles by Heinz Duthel.
The original book on Assange, Underground Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession from the Electronic Frontier, by Suelette Dreyus, while currently being available as a free download, is selling for more than $250 on Amazon in its original paperback edition.