Defending Transparency

Quinn Norton had an excellent post today serving two purposes. First she undertakes a quiet defense of transparency for its own sake. There has been a lot of criticism of so-called naked transparency, the most constructive part of which is making sure there is a role for action as well as mere data. I think there is something to Quinn’s thinking here, that the act of uncovering information is not as passive as many assume. She also points out how different folks are going to receive and use that data differently–where some may be complacent, others have urgent, external pressures to act but need data, even raw, unfiltered data to do so to any effective degree.

My least favorite argument about transparency is that it breeds complacency. This is an argument from a position of tremendous privilege that comes from forgetting why we fight corruption in the first place. It is always the case that corruption costs; right now it is taking a terrible price on a real and growing segment of the population which the corrupt entity is meant to serve. You can only forget the proximate hurt if you’re someone in a position to forget it, someone with money, health insurance, the right travel options. Someone with good schools, and probably, it’s easiest to forget the day to day cost of corruption in America as someone with white skin. Without transparency threatened populations have to take up common myths about why they are in the situation they are in. In short, they blame themselves. Not only are they the victims of corruption, but when it’s not discussed, they’re the victims of believing they’ve brought the situation on themselves. If you want a complacent population, ruining their lives and then getting them to believe they did it themselves is a pretty good way to start.

The second purpose of her post is to remind us that Wikileaks isn’t an acceptable substitute for transparency. The site serves a critical role when the protections for whistle blowers, in the form of shield laws, are uncertain when stories break and evolving largely online crossing the jurisdictions within which these laws currently operate. It doesn’t absolve us of the need to demand information disclosure from our government in the first place.

This is very much like the ministers in the Canadian government, on being criticized for failing to live up to transparency about the ACTA negotiations referring critics to Michael Geist’s web site. An activist gathering and curating leaks is not equivalent to a government acting in a transparent way in the first place, not by a long shot.

Go read the whole post. It isn’t very long and both points are well worth bearing in mind when considering the space of open government, transparency and the role of third party actors like Wikileaks and Professor Geist.

Wikileaks: No Substitute for Transparency, Quinn Said

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