What if WikiLeaks' Dream of an Open Society Came True?

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Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty Images

A man works on his laptop in the Pionen computer-storage facility of Swedish Bahnhof, one of the companies to host WikiLeaks servers, in Stockholm on Dec. 9, 2010

The torrent of confidential U.S. government documents posted to the WikiLeaks website may have slowed over the Christmas holidays, but diplomats and military officials across the world continue to count the cost of the leaks — and question their long-term effects on governance. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says his organization's goal is to force governments into total transparency by making all official documents available to the public. But just how transparent would governments be under such forced scrutiny? Would the publication — or threat of publication — of everything they put to paper force officials to be more honest? Or would it just compel them to make more decisions off the record?

Such questions have been a source of speculation in the U.S. following WikiLeaks' release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, but there's one country where official openness is not just a hypothetical way of governing. Sweden operates closer to an "Assangian" state of absolute transparency than any country in the world, and has long debated whether the policy has the potential to backfire. Swedish sunshine laws are the most far-reaching ever created. Almost every government document — including all mail to and from government offices — is available to the public, save for a small number relating to international relations or national security. At the same time, the country goes to great lengths to ensure that whistle-blowers are protected: should a secret be leaked to the media, for instance, government officials are legally prohibited from investigating the source of the material.

Sweden's ethos of open government is so strong that when WikiLeaks began publishing its cache of U.S. war logs and diplomatic cables via a Swedish server in July (the organization chose Sweden so as to be protected from prosecution by the country's freedom of press laws), some Swedes wondered what all the fuss was about. "In our country, it's not extreme to read documents such as these," says Helena Giertta, editor in chief of Journalisten, a newspaper produced for Swedish journalists. "We understood that they would make international news, but the truth is, if they were Swedish in origin, they would probably be public already."

But even as it takes its transparency laws for granted, Sweden has long debated whether absolute openness leads, paradoxically, to greater secrecy. In 2004 Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a Swede working on transparency issues within the United Nations, published an op-ed in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter in which she called offentlighetspincipen — the principle of public access to official records that was enshrined in the country's law books more than 300 years ago — a "Swedish myth." When she tried to review government files, Ahlenius wrote, she found only "empty boxes." "The principle has come to discourage its original purpose," she added. "It is quite logical: if you are concerned that things will be made immediately public, you do not write it on paper."

Ahlenius' article caused a storm of protest; most Swedish journalists, cultural commentators and even politicians view open government as a cornerstone of Sweden's famously functional society. But some of offentlighetspincipen's defenders — particularly journalists working in other, more secretive arenas — admit there are trade-offs to being so open. Teresa Kuchler, who covers the European Union for the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, says the Swedish delegation to the E.U. is known as "the Starbucks of Brussels" because they are so quick to provide documents to journalists, even those that other member states either classify or redact so heavily as to render them useless. At the same time, Kuchler says, "if you cover [the Swedish press briefings] long enough, you get the feeling that some of the real business is done in the corridors after the meeting where nothing is recorded."

Sweden's sunshine laws have also led to culture clashes with other governments and organizations that have different standards of secrecy. In one example that Swedes still talk about, in January 1999, then Prime Minister Goran Persson publicly criticized the European Commission for suspending a whistle-blower who had accused the Commission of financial irregularity. In response, the head of the Commission, Jacques Santer, sent a strongly worded letter to Persson's home address in Stockholm scolding the Prime Minister for spreading bad publicity. The letter, by Swedish law, was immediately available to the public because it was addressed to "Prime Minister Persson." It appeared in full in the following day's newspapers.

In part because of such incidents, the E.U. has in recent years put pressure on Sweden to bring its transparency laws in line with European standards — an issue that is causing controversy in Sweden. The Riksdag, Sweden's Parliament, is debating a resolution to extend the country's Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 to the Internet and other media. A broader law would ostensibly be a victory for openness, but some commentators fear that an amendment could open the door to restrictive changes, especially those suggested by the E.U. "There's a sense that the government shouldn't even touch our 1766 law because if it does, there will be pressure from Europe to change it," says Ola Larsmo, chairman of the Swedish branch of the international writers' association Pen. "[The law] is a great source of pride here; maybe it should never be changed."

Perhaps inevitably, Sweden's freedom of information laws have attracted WikiLeaks and its staff to the country. The itinerant Assange recently applied for a residency permit (he was denied), and he counted the country as one of his main home bases until Swedish prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for him this summer in relation to accusations of rape and other sex crimes.

But while support for WikiLeaks' project remains high in Sweden, Assange's popularity has dipped. A documentary aired by Swedish TV on Dec. 12 reported that several former WikiLeaks staff members had left the organization over concerns about Assange's own lack of transparency. "For Swedes, that is a valid criticism. WikiLeaks should be as open as it wants governments to be," says Ulrika Knutson, chairwoman of the Swedish National Press Club. "It's rarely simple in practice, but here in Sweden, we believe in a fundamental principle. It is far better to have a free flow of information, even if it comes with trade-offs. To us, that's just a central part of Swedish life."