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Working Toward Universal Transparency
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Posted On May 10, 2016
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Although definitions and applications of transparency vary across the globe, the high-level goal of participatory, collaborative, and transparent governance has been expanded to include research benefits that lead to increased innovation, economic growth, and social improvements.

Understanding Transparency

Transparency is both a philosophy and an innovation that requires changes to political structure and bureaucratic practices at all levels. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is one of the few attempts to make cross-national evaluations of “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.” Although this is one important aspect of the problems created by governmental actions being hidden from public scrutiny, it doesn’t touch on lack of innovation or oversight in governmental operations. Lost opportunities and inefficiencies are other, far more common outcomes of unexamined governance.

Transparency MapAnother way to examine open data and transparency is through the lens of journalism. Reporters play a key role in the intersection of public institutions on one hand and citizens on the other. They are an important part of educating both the public and governmental agencies on the advantages of transparency. As journalist Alexander Howard points out, “While the potential of data journalism is immense, the pitfalls and challenges to its adoption throughout the media are similarly significant, from digital literacy to competition for scarce resources in newsrooms. Global threats to press freedom, digital security, and limited access to data create difficult working conditions for journalists in many countries.”

Philip Bennett and Moises Naim write in a CJR (Columbia Journalism Review) article, “Today, many governments are routing around the liberating effects of the internet. Like entrepreneurs, they are relying on innovation and imitation. In countries such as Hungary, Ecuador, Turkey, and Kenya, officials are mimicking autocracies like Russia, Iran, or China by redacting critical news and building state media brands. They are also creating more subtle tools to complement the blunt instruments of attacking journalists.”

Censorship is difficult to quantify or measure. So, in the meantime, we have to rely on what is available to be measured, and the Corruption Perceptions Index is a good indicator of just how far we have yet to go.

Transparency as Democracy

Another lens through which we can examine transparency is one of democratic ideals—government of the people, for the people, and by the people. This definition has led to the development of a number of interesting new projects. Onlinecensorship.org is a group that solicits global reports of takedowns and other forms of limiting free speech over the internet with the goal to “encourage social media companies to operate with greater transparency and accountability toward their users as they make decisions that regulate speech. We’re collecting reports from users in an effort to shine a light on what content is taken down, why companies make certain decisions about content, and how content takedowns are affecting communities of users around the world.” This collaboration between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Visualizing Impact was founded in 2012 by two people who “had begun to notice posts disappearing from their friends’ Facebook pages.” The site is also an excellent source for aggregated news and information on the status of censorship and user rights on the internet.

Autonomy Cube

Combining art with technology, Trevor Paglen created the Autonomy Cube, “a sculpture designed to be housed in art museums, galleries, and civic spaces.” It isn’t just easy on the eyes, it is also a Tor relay—a free software system that enables users to communicate anonymously on the internet without fear of being traced or having their thoughts tagged, stored, or otherwise captured for some unintended use. “When Autonomy Cube is installed, both the sculpture, host institution, and users become part of a privacy-oriented, volunteer run internet infrastructure,” its website states.

The Guardian describes Paglen as “a conceptualist, a trained geographer and a photographer—and [he] is aware that art’s role is to make ideas, even dire, politically suspect ones, resonate poetically.” His work “gives visual geography to hidden forces, in particular something he calls a landscape of mass surveillance.” The article describes the cube as “a thick, transparent Plexiglas casing for hardware that creates a Wi-Fi hotspot, albeit one in which data is refracted through networks and essentially encrypted. In a physical form that echoes minimalist art, Paglen offers a sense of refuge, turning the gallery into a functionally politicised space—and one that is strangely hopeful in its form of spatially elegant resistance.”

Paglen takes Tor out of the domain of techies and brings it into the general public to show how simple and how deceptively invisible our communications may seem behind the growing walls of data collection, manipulation, and global theft. Wired notes, “Trevor Paglen has been at the vanguard of a movement of fine artists who have led gallery-goers to grapple with the realities of online privacy and government spying. Now he’s gone beyond using museums to merely observe and study surveillance—he’s enlisting those same institutions to fight it.”

Transparency awareness has been heightened and enabled by technology advances over the past several years. Governments claim to be working on providing broader access to information from their agencies; companies are now being held to higher standards than they probably ever anticipated. If the objectives seem obvious, the applications are taking some time to develop. We are just beginning to see evidence of new research, new insights, better government, and true public oversight and control. As with other great ideals, transparency remains a work in progress, yet one that will clearly mark this century as having the greatest achievements of the internet age.


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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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