Ethics@Work: WikiLeaks in the private sector

Julian Assange hopes leak-enforced openness will create ethical competition.

January 20, 2011 22:11
3 minute read.

ASHER MEIR 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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WikiLeaks made big news at the end of last year when it published a trove of classified US diplomatic cables. Now it is making news without publishing anything, as the world waits for the other shoe to drop in the form of leaked documents from the banking sector.

In November, WikiLeaks head Julian Assange announced that in the beginning of 2011, he would release a large amount of documents from a major US bank, and only a few days ago Rudolf Elmer, a former executive in Swiss bank Julius Baer, announced with fanfare that he had provided Assange with a large number of bank documents relating to tax evasion and money laundering.

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No documents in either case have been published, but anticipation is high.

In November, the business magazine Forbes published a long interview with Assange in which he presented the philosophy behind his leaks and the private sector leaks in particular. His answers are instructive.

When asked by interviewer Andy Greenberg what is the intended result of the bank release, he replied that “it will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume... there will be some flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed, but it will also be all the supporting decision-making structures and the internal executive ethos that comes out.”

In other words, just as the government leaks continue in a long tradition of journalists pursuing the public’s right to know about the workings of government, the private sector leaks continue a long tradition of muckraking and disclosures of flagrant practices in private establishments.

And just as Assange would like to be considered in the public sector as an heir to Neil Sheehan of Pentagon Papers fame, in the private sector he would evidently like to be considered as an heir to Upton Sinclair, who gained fame over a century ago for his expose of the US meat-packing industry and for the reforms his expose stimulated.


In a previous column, I discussed some potentially worrisome differences between the diplomatic cables and the Pentagon Papers. The problems involved tendentiousness and reliability. Since the leaker and his motives have never been disclosed, we can’t know if the original motivation for the leaks was to disclose wrongdoing or perhaps to gain a political or diplomatic advantage. And verifying the reliability of a huge number of small documents is orders of magnitude more difficult than verifying the reliability of a single large document as was the case in the Pentagon Papers.

In the Forbes interview, Assange disclosed that he is not worried by tendentious leaks in the private sector context. On the contrary, he considers “competitive” leaks part of a process that will lead to more ethical conduct in business generally.

Overall, he asserts that “WikiLeaks means it’s easier to run a good business and harder to run a bad business, and all CEOs should be encouraged by this.”

If you want to run a clean company but your competitors are playing dirty, leaks will harm them and help you. If you try to help matters along, so much the better. In fact, Assange frankly urges managers, “Do things to encourage leaks from dishonest competitors.”

The consequence will be that “honest companies producing quality products are more competitive than dishonest companies producing bad products. And companies that treat their employees well do better than those that treat them badly.”

It remains to be seen if WikiLeaks will create a revolution in business competition, giving a competitive advantage to ethical and law-abiding businesses, or if it is merely the contemporary representative of an eminent muckraking tradition.

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