I’ve had some interesting conversations about the role of transparency and privacy and I have an opinion about this. I think that we have a world where those in power have secrecy and citizen are forced to be transparent. I think that modern technology has made this increasingly so. I think that fundamentally, it should be the opposite. Public figures and institutions in power should be forced to be transparent and private citizen should have privacy and the right to speak without fear of retribution or persecution. I think this is essential for democracy and open society and we need to push for and enable this to happen.
As we work on this process of making the powerful transparent, we run into some difficulties because most institutions, even those that are for the most part well-meaning and good, are not robust against transparency because they haven’t been designed to be transparent.
It reminds me of software projects that try to “go open source” after they’ve been written. It’s often nearly impossible because the code is a mess. When people write software to be open, they typically write it in a way that is understandable to the outside and isn’t embarrassing. For instance, I know some developers who use obscene words for their variables or vent their frustration about their love life in the comments in their code. They’d lose their jobs or their spouses if their code was suddenly “open”.
In most powerful institutions, corners are cut and methods are used in a somewhat “ends justify the means” sort of way. There are a lot of things that are done and said behind closed doors that wouldn’t survive public scrutiny, but have become common practice. In many cases, these practices aren’t necessarily critically wrong, but just embarrassing or politically incorrect in some way.
I believe that Wikileaks is just the beginning of a bigger trend where it will become harder and harder to hide information and citizen counter-surveillance will become a norm rather than an exception.
I think that this will cause a lot of pain to powerful institutions – some will be overthrown or crushed. However, I think that we can build institutions that are robust against transparency if we design them that way from the beginning. It will be harder than learning to write open source software, but I believe that in the end we’ll have a society that is better, stronger, more effective and fair.