Peering through the looking glass



“There were doors all around the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again. Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass; there was nothing on it except a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first thought was that it might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!”

Lewis Carroll,
Alice in Wonderland

As editors of this issue we think we’d better start with a confession. We have conflicting feelings about ‘Transparency and Accountability’ both as a development concept or movement and as an unfolding story. We’re not sure who is being empowered and we’re not clear if those of us in the development and human rights sectors are moving ahead too uncritically, too fast, still wow-ed by the promises of technology.

Transparency and Accountability is a broad heading. As the donor-led Transparency Accountability Initiative states, this “public movement…brings together a wide range of organisations and projects aimed at promoting greater openness on the part of governments, companies and other institutions so that the public can hold them to account.” The many efforts that use the ‘Transparency and Accountability’ header include citizen, donor, corporate and government-driven initiatives and many of these are far from united in their goals, practices or aspirations.

In this introduction to this special issue we want to focus on government over corporate transparency initiatives since we believe that the latter more often involve citizens and NGOs playing a critical ‘watchdog’ role while the former combine a more complex mix of projects that involve government-citizen partnerships.

We want to start by acknowledging that there are lots of significant, interesting Transparency and Accountability projects. Partnership-based initiatives like the Open Budget Initiative or Open Spending (tracking government financial transactions across the world) have become popular and useful tools that have supported NGOs and citizens to scrutinise and sometimes challenge their governments. From civil society, bottom-up and first-mover accountability initiatives such as I Paid a Bribe from India demonstrate that when governments won’t investigate or clamp down on government corruption, citizens can and will step in to push or embarrass their government into action.

But beyond getting people to ask questions about government practices and to report injustices when they experience them, the real impact of most Transparency and Accountability tech-focused initiatives is not clear.

Despite this, people promoting this movement sometimes focus on the release of data as though it has achieved something more than it has. Sure access to information is vital for a healthy civil society. But virtual data dumps by our governments do not in and of themselves achieve anything. They do not necessarily make governments more transparent or public bodies accountable.

And as we look at the achievements of civic hacking days and other events that focus on the use of government data releases, we can’t help but question if the time and effort spent by talented young hackers to map public transport routes, provide visualisations of historical weather charts or chart available after-school activities for children might not have been better spent findings ways to map the violence, inequalities and injustices that are not rendered visible by such public information.

As Melissa Gregg and Carl Disalvo pointed out in a recent article titled The Trouble With White Hats, there are real paradoxes with governments that promote national ‘hacking’ days but then come down like a tonne of bricks on expert hackers, leakers or whistleblowers who use information about the government in “disruptive” ways like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Jeremy Hammond or Edward Snowden. But for Gregg and Sisalvo, the real problem with government supported civic hacking events is the “provisional citizenship” provided to “good” hackers who, without pay, develop (mostly half finished ideas) that operate within the limitations and boundaries established by their own limited collective knowledge of social issues and usually also within the restricted confines set by the information, support and guidelines given to them by government agencies and their corporate backers (we acknowledge that NGO-driven hacker events could address some of these issues) .

What this ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ hacker paradox highlights is that while some of our governments are opening up certain kinds of public information and are encouraging us to use it, they are also, at the same time, tightening the lid on information they consider to be sensitive while simultaneously peering in on information that no doubt most of us believe they should not be. Obama tells us that the US Congress was repeatedly briefed on their dragnet surveillance system over a period of seven years and that not one elected Congress representative objected. The US government, we have also learnt from Edward Snowden’s leaks, has for years been listening to the German Chancellor’s private calls. But worst of all is that we now know the US government are sucking up and storing digital traces left behind by all non-American citizens. These are not “modest encroachments on privacy” as Obama called it: they are substantial encroachments, especially for those of us who are not US citizens and have no Congress representative to lobby. Knowing what we now know now about PRISM and NSA surveillance practices, it’s hard not to sneer cynically at Hillary Clinton’s “landmark” internet freedom speech. “Now” she said, “in many respects, information has never been so free.” Free to whom?

The unexpected and unprecedented leaks of state secrets regarding NSA government surveillance (and that of other states), Cablegate, The Global Intelligence Files and the Iraq War Logs have provided evidence that the richest and most powerful governments are spying on us all, that they cover up serious criminal behaviour when knowledge of it may impede their interests, and in spying on one another they have opted to ignore evidence of serious crime and corruption. How can we reconcile Transparency and Accountability initiatives amidst these revelations? Especially when no apologies, deep regrets or meaningful policy changes ever seem to follow.

Beyond issues of state surveillance, there are fresh questions to be asked about the corporations we use to support our transparency and accountability initiatives. Google and Facebook have a range of programs to ‘help’ us achieve our communication goals. As Evgeny Morozov reminds us, “Silicon Valley still holds a firm grip on the mechanics of the public debate” and “letting Google organize all of the world’s information makes as much sense as letting Halliburton organize all of the world’s oil.” What restrictions and risks are we imposing when we take up these commercial platforms.

There is an uncomfortable and often unresolved tension between privacy and transparency. What do we want to make transparent and to what extent? How should private information about individuals be protected? As Morozov argues, we should not accept that privacy is something citizens need to buy back or be be highly skilled to have. Communication privacy has long been fought for and in many countries rights have been won in courts: why and how are we contributing to or accepting its erosion?

As we put together this issue on Transparency & Accountability, the Open Government Partnership Summit was taking place in London. This partnership unites 62 countries in a promise to make public processes more accountable. One of the big moments from the London OGP summit was the incident involving Indian author and activist, Aruna Roy. John Kerry, the United States’ Secretary of State spoke via live satellite link from the United States. According to a story in the Guardian, she asked the question that was on everyone’s minds. Roy asked him:

There’s more transparency in governments, there’s more accountability. And at the same time, there are more restrictive laws being passed by all governments today than ever before and there is an attempt at surveillance by my government and your governments. Why is this happening?”

Given this scenario of digital ‘leakiness’,  the self-interest and customised levels of state transparency and the deep lack of citizen-government trust, what can we expect, reliably, from projects that aim to improve the feedback between citizens and governments or hold governments accountable through access to data?

Our concerns also go beyond questions of effectiveness. What potentially damaging metadata and traces have been left behind online and on archived and searchable government databases? These are questions we all need to ask because as Privacy International has recently pointed out “there has been a systematic failure to critically contemplate the potential ill effects of deploying technologies in development and humanitarian initiatives, and in turn, to consider the legal and technical safeguards required in order to ensure the rights of individuals living in the developing world.”

The contributors in this special issue all attended the 2013 Info-Activism Camp in Italy. Many of the 130 participants at the camp are working on Transparency and Accountability initiatives and so we wanted to use this issue to draw upon their expertise to think through the opportunities for analysing the inner workings of our governments at a time when this is clearly of critical importance. But we also asked the contributors to help us consider the risks of encouraging citizens to share data with self-interested corporations, possibly insecure NGOs and not-to-trusted governments.

We hope you enjoy this third issue of the Evidence & Influence Micromagazine and we encourage you to share with us your responses.

Tanya Notley (@tattinot) and Maya Ganesh (@mayameme)

Cover image by Gabi Sibley