Transparency is not always to the benefit of society

This question has been posed by Jan Nolin, professor at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, who has critically considered transparency as a common phenomenon. In his research, he has studied both activist movements of various kinds, such as Wikimedia, Free Software Foundation, and Wikileaks, as well as general ideologies such as open data, open science and open access.

"There are several movements that simultaneously and in different ways speak about transparency and openness, and these have only been studied individually in the past. But at the same time, they are all digital movements, which means they are increasingly commingled and that they build further on each other. Therefore, it is also important that we study them together."

Exploited by commercial actors

Digital development has gone very quickly in the last twenty years. That, according to Jan Nolin, has led to the fact that states have not really had the time to create regulations and laws that can help us navigate the digital world. Content on digital platforms is not tied to a country, making it difficult for those who write laws. This has meant that movements in favour of transparency have been able to set the agenda in this area, while at the same the EU has reactively had to compensate for transparency ideology with various types of privacy laws.

"Normally, there would have been an investigation to determine the consequences of the different types of regulation, but now there is a point in all the countries' doing the same thing. In that case, it's easy to follow the guidelines that transparency movements have already prepared, such as Creative Commons licenses that govern how we use open content," says Jan Nolin.

The movements he talks about began to emerge in the 1990s when those interested in IT began to develop free software that was either ready to be used directly by the end user or by companies as a basis that they could build upon further. After that, the ideals of transparency have spread to other areas, and today many advocate that content and data, or information, should be completely open--especially if they are resources that have been paid for by taxpayers.

"Transparency movements require that the benefits from our tax money be free to all--but often, you as an individual do not have any real opportunity to take advantage of the resources that society has developed in terms of data or content. In contrast, there are commercial players who have a lot of money and an advanced infrastructure that can use resources in different ways--not infrequently at the expense of the individual," says Jan Nolin.

Distorted image of corruption

And this is where the risks come in, he says. They lie in what happens when the different data sources are combined with each other. An example is when the Indian government compiled geological data on the different geographic areas in the country. For the individual, the data about different mineral salts and such was not very useful, but larger companies could combine the information that had been compiled with other types of data, and thus find out where they were likely to find precious natural resources. With that knowledge, they bought valuable land for cheap from farmers who did not get justly paid for their land.

Another risk that arises is that a corrupt state can aggregate information from open research data with statements that Wikileaks has received from a whistle blower. Suddenly, using various sources, the whistle blower can be found and punished.

"Wikileaks is an exciting example. It was originally launched to reveal corruption in both democratic and dictatorial states. But the fact is that it is a lot easier to dig for information in a society that is already open, and therefore a lot of focus ends up on the democratic states. That doesn't mean it's wrong that irregularities are divulged there, but there is a risk that it gives an impression that the democratic states are corrupt while the dictatorships are not. Who is served by that impression?"

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More on the article "Defining transparency movements" in our research database DiVA

Jan Nolin's researcher profile

To The Swedish School of Library and Information Science

Text: Helen Rosenberg

Translation by: Eva Medin

Photo: Mostphotos