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How Much Transparency Does the World Actually Need?

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This one is about one of the current hot topics in and about the digital world, transparency. How much is there? should there be/ is it a Good Thing?

Reviewing the book by Micah Sifry, Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency (2011), JBAT argues that ‘Sifry’s book turns on this question, raised early in the work: “Is Wikileaks a symptom of decades of governmental and institutional opacity, or is it a disease that needs to be stopped at all costs?”

The Wikileaks Story

Put another way, JBAT says: ‘if we kill Wikileaks (as many on both the left and right wish we would), what do we lose in the process?’

Sifry’s point is that for all its flaws including Julian Assange, Wikileaks is ‘proving a test of democracy’ in a time when powerful institutions are increasingly unaccountable. The digital tools of control are ‘increasingly in the hands of our largest social institutions’.

Accountability is key. Without it, we can’t trust institutions at all, as many recent events in government and banking have shown. Sifry wants the default setting for institutional power to be ‘open’.

He claims that the publication of all the military data by Wikileaks, and the US government response to it, highlights a hypocrisy. If the internet helps overturn repressive regimes around the world, it can also be used to question all governments.

The Bigger Picture

The question of how much freedom should the media have is a highly contentious one. The advent of social media has meant that what companies can, should and actually do with all the private information, data and views they transmit across their various platforms, is part of that freedom and transparency debate.

In another debate, Michael Marchionda argues that the ‘immediacy and accessibility of the internet makes it an ideal medium for transparency, whether intended or not’. He urges companies afraid of increased transparency to welcome what comes with the essential business presence on the web.

He says that transparency builds customer trust and for ‘every example of transparency gone wrong, there are many examples of transparency used successfully’. To that end, he clarified he was talking about ‘openness, communication and accountability’ at every business level including staff and customers.

Transparency is not full disclosure, but ‘disclosing relevant information to the right people, the right way at the right time’. That means some risk of misunderstandings, premature announcements or damage from rivals, but in the new business model of the digital age, is unavoidable risk.

Transparency’s Benefits

There are examples of unlikely organisations, such as the US military being more transparent in dealings with families and troops through a new social media approach that boosts morale. There are lessons for other fields of activity.

Focussing on government, Lauren Harper in another internet discussion about Democracy in the Digital Age reasons that ‘expanding access to government information promotes transparency and entrenches core, democratic principles. When the government increases access to information proactively it means government institutions and civil society are working, and when the government does so electronically, it means the government is working efficiently’.

In Britain we have safeguards like Human Rights and Freedom of Information legislation, designed to open transparency. Government itself is attempting to move to e-government as fast as possible.

Of course, all talk of transparency in anything must be tempered by realities such as the quality of data, the ease of transmission, wider security issues and the personalities of the individuals involved. Many human beings, however sociable, actually fight shy of having everything about them available to anybody, even their genuine friends.

Tackling Business Opaqueness

One London based company, Duedil (named after ‘due diligence’) is developing a market in allowing searchers to find all of a company’s information. It is simpler than the Companies House website and is free to use.

Duedil carries everything known about every UK and Irish company, but its particular strength is, in the words of chief executive Damian Kimmelman ‘to shine a spotlight on privately-owned companies which at the moment can avoid the scrutiny of their publicly-listed rivals’.

Kimmelman says that the bulk of our economy is made up of private companies large and small, and information from HMRC, the Patent Office and magistrates’ courts is vital in allowing customers access to a full picture.

He dismisses those afraid of such transparency in remarks to the Daily Telegraph (8 October 2012): ‘When you’re assessing risk, all the information is directly or indirectly related to two things – the business and the people running the business’.

Data, analytics, risk assessment, transparency – all sons of business success or separate unconnected products of the digital era?


Will Transparency Trump Secrecy in the Digital Age? by JBAT, 22 March 2012

Open for Business by Michael Marchionda, 12 October 2012

Democracy in the Digital Age by Lauren Harper, 11 October 2012


Related topics:

Today’s 5 Most Pressing Business Concerns About Technology, 16 October 2012

Ben Hammersley: Facing the Digital Future Without Fear, 28 August 2012

Do Businesses Need Social Media? 26 March 2012

Who Actually Owns Your Social Media? 19 June 2012

Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and the Unknown Unknowns, 18 April 2012

Image: Jordan.bayles