As if the political fallout from the recent disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables was not reason enough to follow this story closely, the WikiLeaks saga has now squarely landed in the middle of one of the most pressing business and human rights debates of our time: the responsibility of business to respect the rights to free expression and privacy.

After companies from Amazon to MasterCard cut business ties to WikiLeaks this week citing illegal activity by the group, they are facing allegations from human rights groups that they were complicit in an effort by the U.S. government to censor the site. Hackers supporting WikiLeaks have attacked the online services of those companies in retaliation for the alleged censorship, in some cases causing significant damage.

Wherever you stand on the issue, this development highlights three important lessons:

  • First, in the age of radical transparency, every business decision can instantly be under a global microscope and those who disagree can mobilize against the company in a matter of hours. The internet and advent of social media have leveled the playing field to the point where one man, Julian Assange, with very limited funds, can take on the major governments of the world and cause serious damage to their policy agendas. The hacker attacks that followed this week underscore the need for business to adapt to this new world order.
  • Second, companies can face human rights-related risks in every part of the world. Much of the debate on freedom of expression and the right to privacy on the internet focuses on China, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Today, companies like Amazon and MasterCard find themselves fighting allegations of succumbing too easily to pressure from the U.S. government to take down a website in the interest of national security. When facing such requests in any country, companies should insist that government agencies follow due process before complying.
  • Third, human rights issues like free expression and privacy are difficult to predict, complex, politically charged, and carry significant operational, reputational, and legal risk for the companies involved. As with other sources of risk, companies need robust policies and risk assessment processes to ensure that human rights risks are identified early and managed effectively and in a transparent manner. In the case of free expression and privacy on the internet, the Global Network Initiative has developed useful tools and guidance.

This story is likely only in its first chapter and more companies will find themselves caught between the two sides of the debate around free expression, privacy, and national security. Further, whether Bank of America or another company is WikiLeak’s next target, businesses need to be prepared for all their actions to be publicly exposed at any time and with no warning. The time to adjust to this new reality of radical transparency is now.