This post was co-written by Ellen Miller and Mike Klein, Sunlight’s co-founders.
The Sunlight Foundation was founded in 2006 with one core idea: that when information about what our government is doing and who is trying to influence it is made broadly available on the Internet, we as individuals and as a society can better watch over our government, raise questions, root out corruption, highlight problems, elevate solutions, and in so doing, foster real government accountability and strengthen public faith in our institutions. While we have made much progress, we have a long way to go towards our goal of a government that is as transparent and accountable as possible.
We at Sunlight are transparency advocates. But we are not anti-secrecy per se. Information about private individuals and their private lives deserve to remain private. Some secrets about ongoing military operations and security activities should not be revealed to the public. Some debates over public policy can and should be done behind closed doors to allow for confidential negotiations as long as there is public review. But we strongly believe that information about the workings of government should, in general, be public. There should be fewer secrets, not more. Thus the current controversy over the non-profit Internet media organization, WikiLeaks, warrants that we speak out.
Thanks to the Internet, there is now a greater ability to shine light on the workings of government and other powerful actors. This democratization of watch-dogging is a profoundly good thing. It must be vigorously protected against censors — those who would prefer the public know less, not more, about what they are doing. More information, plus the Internet’s power to spread it beyond centralized control, may be our best defense against bad or illegal behavior.
WikiLeaks may be no more or less perfect than other media entities. Freedom of the press and of speech are often messy. But these rights are crucial, enshrined and protected as our most fundamental principles and practices. The First Amendment is there to establish that it is not the job of the media in a democratic society to protect those in power from embarrassment or exposure. Thus, even when we are faced with what may we think of as “bad” press or speech, we must avoid responding with censorship — the cure must not be worse than the disease.
If crimes have been committed in connection with the WikiLeaks experience, let the government make that case in court and let due process follow its course. But in the meantime, calls by some government leaders for the persecution of Julian Assange, or the extreme calls for his assassination, the intimidation of private internet service providers; the extra-legal freezing of WikiLeaks assets; and the blocking of the display of WikiLeaks-related information on government computers—even at the hallowed Library of Congress, where you can read all manner of subversive books—are affronts to an open society, a perversion of Internet activity, and a dagger aimed at the heart of the modern transparency movement.
The current reaction to WikiLeaks in the United States has exposed the vulnerability of any online publisher here to government pressure. This chilling effect on our democracy must be opposed.