WikiLeaks' Julian Assange: Ethical Capitalist, New-Age Gandhian or Anarchist?

by Aman Singh Das | December 06, 2010

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Who is Julian Assange: An ethical capitalist, a protagonist for corporate social responsibility, a new-age Gandhian, or an anarchist and a menace to society?

Take a look, for example, at this from his interview with Forbes: "You could call it the ecosystem of corruption. But it's also all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that's not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they're fulfilling their own self-interest. The way they talk about it."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

I turned to some of today's most prominent thought leaders on transparency, accountability and CSR. Our attempt at deconstructing WikiLeaks and the aftermath of Assange's expose(s) for the state of corporate social responsibility:

Let's begin with a simple realization: Regardless of motive or short term effects, Assange's investigation is changing the way we perceive the government and organizations with respect to ethical behavior and overall responsibility.

What Shelly Lazarus recently called "enlightened self interest," is in fact a realization across the private sector that status quo won't work for too long in an economy of unequals.

In Favor of Transparency…

Over email, Marc Gunther, author of the blog The Business of Sustainability and a contributing editor for Fortune, appreciated Assange's efforts. "Since I've been a reporter all my life, I have an instinctive, almost automatic belief that more transparency is better—whether we're talking about government or business," he wrote, adding, "There are limits, of course, particularly when it comes to personal privacy. But I think scholars, journalists, citizens and ultimately the government itself will benefit from the work done by Wikileaks," he said via email.

Gunther has been writing on sustainability for a long time and is also the creator of Brainstorm Green, Fortune's annual conference on business and the environment. He touched on the issue of transparency very recently in a blog post where he broke the news that Jeffrey Hollender, the much-celebrated founder and CEO of Seventh Generation, had been forced out of the company. Lamenting the announcement, Gunther had observed, " Speaking of transparency…. there's not a word (as of Monday Nov. 1) on the Seventh Generation website about his departure."

On WikiLeaks, Gunther ended with a similar plea for further information: "I wish they could uncover more material from corporations."

…But Transparency Must Be Contextual

Dave Meyer, the VP for Northwest Operations with sustainability consulting firm SEEDS, chose to differ with Gunther's stance for transparency.

"While I agree that there needs to be more openness in government, reckless disclosure that puts innocent lives in harm's way is irresponsible at best and possibly criminal. Assange's disclosure tactics and apparent lack of due diligence prior to releasing some of these diplomatic cables shows a blatant disregard for the diplomatic process as well as fairness and openness," he said.

Meyer also took issue with Assange's modus operandi: "Restraint in a dangerous world is vital and the media too bears some responsibility to determine what should be disclosed or not." [Related: WikiLeaks is Bad Bad CSR]

Finally, on the issue of voluntary and involuntary reporting, Meyer offered the opinion that "WikiLeaks' 'take no prisoners' approach can potentially do one of two things: Create further entrenchment and lack of disclosure, or awake companies to the fact that they are being watched (not only by WikiLeaks) but so many other NGOs that may decide to take a similar hard line approach," he warned.

Reminding Government & Business of Their Role in Society

"Somebody somewhere is already writing the screenplay. His Wikileaks website is but one beacon on the road to greater transparency in politics, with big business the next target. How lasting the effects are, only time will tell." This is how David Connor, the managing director of UK-based consulting firm Coethica, chose to respond while also calling Assange "an enigma" and "an ego warrior on a transparency crusade."

However, for Connor WikiLeaks' biggest strength lies in the "trust it generates among those wishing to spill the beans."

Sound a bit counter intuitive?

Quoting political philosopher Edmund Burke, who once said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," Connor wrote: "Julian Assange, if nothing else, has given more good men an ally and confidence to take action in whatever walk of life they witness wrongdoing."

Calling him a "catalyst for a cultural change toward greater transparency and associated accountability," Connor added, "I hope history books prove me right. Politicians often need to be reminded they are servants of the public and business people that they are servants of our custom."

WikiLeaks' Anti-Hero?

John C. Ronquillo, who is a research consultant with the Department of Housing and Consumer Economics and a PhD Candidate with the Department of Public Administration and Policy, at University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs, took a much more cautionary take on Assange.

Positing that companies probably watched the government squirm to a "supposed exercise in transparency," with a 'now you know how we feel' air Ronquillo supposed: "If anything, companies may decide to take preventative measures of their own to both ensure that sensitive information is protected while being as transparent as they can be without compromising their bottom lines."

He also pointed out that Assange's flair for drama ironically puts the spotlight on how "whistleblowers often get labeled as common heroes (the case of Enron, for example)" although, he continued, "this is clearly not the case with WikiLeaks, except for those who consider themselves part of a counter culture."

The Internet's Killer CSR App

Finally, I turned to Gregory Unruh who is a professor of global business at Thunderbird School of Global Management and the director of the school's Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management. Unruh, who is a celebrated thought leader on business ethics, CSR, and and innovation management, as well as a co-blogger on Forbes' CSR Blog, indicated that WikiLeaks' legacy for corporate and government transparency—and therefore, accountability—is the application of a fluid medium like the internet by Assange for his expose.

As he explains in his latest post on : " It may be that governments find a way to silence Assange (Wikileaks.org is undergoing shadowy cyber attacks to shut it down) but it won't stop the wave of involuntary transparency that the Internet provides. Transparency is the Internet's killer CSR app. You can either get out in front of it or fall prey to it."

[Having worked at an India-based investigative online media company that had to temporarily close down due to a protracted court battle with the ruling political party at the time because of their findings of rampant corruption—the potency of the Internet and Unruh's warning resonates closely.

In today's world of social media then, Assange's revelations will leave a lasting effect, if not on his targets, most certainly for defining how a rousing consciousness begins to aggressively demand ethical business practices.]

The Final Piece: Informed Decisions Lead To Change

Regardless of Assange's motives or ambitions, the WikiLeaks drama is really just about us our every day decisions.

As Connor put it, "Now [that] we have more internet based sticks (or threat of), we need both politics and business to see the carrot of transparency." The challenge isn't in how WikiLeaks will change the regulatory landscape but in how we as employees, job candidates and informed careerists, embrace and demand transparency from our employers.

For business leaders then, this invitation for lucidity is, in fact, is the opportunity to gain a very real competitive advantage.

In Connor's words, "If we singularly focus on the risk of exposure we create a defensive way of thinking that is at best fragile. For the genuine public and private sector leaders out there, embracing openness can provide a competitive advantage. It is up to us as individuals to vote with our ballot papers and our wallets for those with integrity to bare all."

And I'd add, our career decisions as well.

Relevant:

Why There Is a Case for Corporate Social Responsibility

Filed Under: CSR

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