WikiLeaks and its hacker backers need a lesson in transparency

WikiLeaks itself, and the secretive hackers who disrupted websites in support, can't claim pure transparency for government but not for themselves. Julian Assange must practice what he preaches.

After releasing secret US dispatches, the website WikiLeaks itself has now become the center of global attention – even triggering a cyberwar by hackers who support or oppose its whistle-blowing work.

Central to this turning of a harsh spotlight on WikiLeaks is the contention by its founder, Julian Assange, that “transparent government tends to produce just government.”

If pure openness in all public affairs is really his motive, Mr. Assange and his obscure supporters on the Internet have displayed a certain hypocrisy by not being very transparent themselves.

Until he was detained in London based on allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, Assange had been coy about his tactics and whereabouts. [Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to charges of sex crimes.] Many of his staff have abandoned him. And the computer hackers who disrupted websites like PayPal and Visa after those companies ended their business ties to WikiLeaks, did so with the utmost secrecy and revenge.

Their loopy logic goes like this: Sunshine is the best antidote to darkness – except when we need to be dark.

Secrecy in government has always been an easy target, and should be held to a minimum in free societies that still must operate against secretive foes. But those who want no secrecy at all can hardly operate in secrecy and then expect respect for their views.

The “hacktivist” group known as Anonymous, which launched the site-damaging “Operation Payback,” did so out from a perspective that the Internet is driving all information – films, music, patents, and even government secrets – to be free. The group even hacked the site of Swedish prosecutors seeking extradition of Assange.

Certainly the Internet has challenged traditional notions of privacy, rights to the ownership of one’s creations, and the extent of confidentiality in official affairs. But most activists for Internet freedom have relied on open debate, a free flow of ideas, and respect for those who oppose them – not hurtful revenge and deceptive secrecy.

Social websites like Facebook are still struggling to balance privacy and openness. Journalists and their government sources do a well-known dance to negotiate the release of secret information. The music and film industries are coming to terms with new business models – such as Apple iTunes – that juggle the need to compensate artists with the ever-popular demand for free stuff on the Web.

Tactics matter in this ongoing debate, and acting without transparency in the name of transparency is not a tactic that contributes to solutions. Nor is cyberbullying, which is what hacking amounts to. Using the methods of anarchists on the Internet will destroy its very independence – and freedom.

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