The disruptors arrive at Davos

Last year at Davos, I said I was among the disrupted when I preferred to be among the disruptors.

The disruptor arrived last night. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, former spokesman for Wikileaks and founder of the competitive OpenLeaks, came to a dinner about transparency at which I was a panelist, alongside the Guardian’s Timothy Garton-Ash, Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth, and Harvard’s David Kennedy, led by the NY Times’ Arthur Sulzberger.

Sad irony: the session on transparency was off-the-record. I asked for it to be open; Sulzberger asked in turn; no go. Fill in your punchline here.

But Dan Perry of the AP was there and interviewed the hyphenates, Domscheit-Berg and Garton-Ash, on the record. Under Chatham House Rule, we can summarize the talk without attributing it.

In truth, there was little disagreement — until we switched from transparent government to transparent business.

About government, the speakers put forward the expected enthusiasm about forcing more transparency upon government with the expected hesitation about potential harm resulting from incomplete redaction and about making government more secret rather than less. No surprises. One person in the room — a journalist I’ve heard here before who inevitably supports power structures — actually opposed transparent government (preferring mere accountability … though how one gets to the latter without the former, I have no idea).

About business, we did disagree. The question was posed: is secrecy a competitive advantage? Most of the panelists and the room said it was. I disagreed as did one other person you might expect to disagree. I argued that transparency is not about just malfeasance but also about a new and necessary way to operate in collaboration with one’s customers and public. Old, institutional companies will miss another boat as new, transparent companies take advantage of the age of openness to do business in a new way.

What I see is that when corporations are subjected to leaks, the reaction will be different. They’ll have more defenders from the power structure. They’ll too rarely see the opportunity in operating as open companies. But it won’t stop the leaks and the march of transparency.

Tomorrow, I’m going to an awards ceremony held by PublicEye.CH, naming the worst corporation in the world (you can still vote) and there, Domscheit-Berg will present OpenLeaks. This is the counterweight to the congregation of the Davos Man.

* Note also that one of my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY, Matt Terenzio, just launched Localeaks, which will enable any newspaper in the U.S. to receive leaks from whistleblowers. Very cool. More about it here.

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  • Great to see the launch of LocalLeaks but I found it ironic that the students of the champion of new, hyperlocal sites only listed dead-tree media (at least that was the case in my region). My site, along with many other pure-play hyperlocal news sites, participated in a CUNY-sponsored study on the economics of hyperlocal. I’d suggest the LocalLeaks folks simply add those sites to the list of sites interested in leaks. I’m sure it’s not their intent to be biased against pure-play Internet-only sites. Surely they must realize that there are more than a few newspapers that are motivated to preserve those in power rather than expose misdeeds. I’ve seen it firsthand in my neck of the woods.

    • Then help him out and add yourself to the list of publishers.

  • The distinction between government and business transparency is an interesting one, indeed. On one hand, I agree with the majority of the group that, as a matter of empirical fact, secrecy has been a distinct competitive advantage for companies across the private sector.

    But on the other hand, I agree heartily with you and the other dissenter that in a new century, where more and more of us formerly uninformed consumers value transparency from the companies we buy from (think about Dominoes recently advertising about where it gets its ingredients from, or the popularity of “Fast Food Nation,” which revealed the food sources and business strategies behind many fast food chains) too much secrecy can quickly become a liability.

    The more secrets that companies keep in an age of WikiLeaks, OpenLeaks, LocalLeaks, et cetera, they more they open themselves up to risk of experiencing bad publicity or public disapproval resulting from the release of those very secrets. Companies need to think long and hard about what’s really worth trying to conceal these days, because the more they stick to the shadows, the more they’ll suffer when sunlight is eventually shined on them.

  • As a long time business and technology reporter, I know that many documents to expose companies are readily available through systems like Edgar at the SEC. The problem is getting news organizations to plow through, make sense of them for readers and get them published. Thankfully, the Web is making the publishing part easier.
    I do agree with Jeff Jarvis about transparency. The companies that will thrive in the digital age are those that operate in the open and adopt radical transparency as a way of doing business. Unfortunately many media companies are not willing to do this so how can they expect that from other companies?

  • Scott Easterday

    I think there are two types of secrets and people are getting them mixed up. The first one being a trade secret. For example, Apple brings a new iPhone to market. In the meantime it is a secret within the company, to gain an upper advantage on the competition. The second being a secret that, you don’t want people to know about ever. Few examples are, a loophole to evade higher taxes, where the food comes from taco bell, or where bottled water is collected. It comes down too where you draw the line. What type of transparency are you looking for? I will give an analogy, two football teams at their first game, one being transparent about their plays and what they are going to run. Second team practice in a closed off facility and no outside discussion of their skills. Who would you place your money on?

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