Saturday, January 29, 2011

Does Business Fear WikiLeaks?

The recent spate of companies working to crimp access to funds for WikiLeaks has unearthed another instance of blurring lines between business and politics. Mastercard, Visa Europe, Amazon, and PayPal over the past several months have blocked donations to WikiLeaks and continue to do so. Deciding whether or not to allow funding for an organization whose value proposition is to provide a public service ultimately puts these companies in a situation where they are clearly deciding, however indirectly, the degree of censorship that should be permitted in a given society.

Google’s stance against censorship in China is very similar to what is going on here because Google took a stand against what many would call a public right – freedom of speech. But the WikiLeaks example is interesting because we’re talking, among other things, about US politics and the protection of US secret documents. On the one hand some would argue that the credit card companies are defending the interests of the public because they are using their power to keep these secrets safe. On the other hand, some would argue that the credit card companies are breaching what is considered a public right to access information.

My colleagues Dirk Matten and Andy Crane nicely point out the hypocrisy associated with the stance these companies are taking where, for example, Mastercard permits payments using its card for donations to the Klu Klux Klan but not WikiLeaks.

So what’s going on here? PayPal admitted in December that their decision to freeze the WikiLeaks account was a result of pressure from the U.S. State Department. The VP of platform Osama Bedier said, “[The] State Dept told us these were illegal activities. It was straightforward”. Recently though an independent inquiry contracted by Visa found no proof WikiLeaks has been breaking any law. But despite the ruling, Visa says that they will continue blocking donations until they conduct their own investigation. Isn’t it fantastic that Visa is going through all this effort for public welfare?

Perhaps there is an alternative reason for this behavior? The Economist wrote an interesting piece several weeks back speaking of the plethora of private sector political lobbying efforts that tend to fall off the public radar screen. Kock Industries is one such company, spending billions of dollars supporting organizations that take a stance on denying climate change. The interesting thing is that companies like Kock, Exxon, and General Motors have created layers of separation between their financial contribution and the organization or individual at the center of trumping regulation meant to protect public interests. James Hoggan, in Climate Cover-Up, chronicles the elaborate approaches companies use to create layers of activity that perceptually disconnects the company from propaganda associated with climate change denial.

Could WikiLeaks change all that? Could we see a whole host of cables linking company political contributions to causes that trump societal interests in favor of private or even political interests? We all know that this is happening already but what would happen if it was exposed with hard proof? The economist issued an article called “Be Afraid: Companies Must Adapt to a World Where no Secret is Safe”. In September 2009 WikiLeaks posted a leaked internal report from Trafigura, a commodities giant, discussing a hazardous waste spill in Côte d’Ivoire. In January 2008 WikiLeaks released stolen documents from Julius Baer, a Swiss bank, including bank records of about 1,600 clients with accounts at a subsidiary in the Cayman Islands. The bank sued to stop WikiLeaks publishing the documents, but then dropped the suit.

Worse, as the Economist notes, many firms do not have the right policies or procedures in place that allow them to track down some of their own behavior. According to a new study by Kroll Ontrack, more than half of companies in America and Britain do not have a “data map”, a document describing what information is being stored and who has access to it.

What are the implications of this? Could this mean the end of greenwashing? Or could greenwashing simply become the norm? What about behind the scenes lobbying? Would it stop or would the world just now accept that this is going on and continue on as before? The advancements in technology are unraveling faster than even the most ruthless and cunning companies can respond. The next few years will likely be an interesting gong show where WikiLeaks-like companies reveal the skeletons in the closet of some of the most well respected companies. WikiLeaks may in effect cut through the layers of propaganda that has kept the consumer ill-informed of what companies are up to.

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