This article is part of a series: ‘Stigmergy: Systems of Mass Collaboration’.
It is essential to participatory government, that organizations which affect the public be transparent to the public; without full information, people are incapable of making the decisions required to participate in their own governance. In the past, any secrets by public organizations, short of war secrets, were grounds for a scandal. A free media and freedom of speech were essential in a democracy so that transparency of public matters could be ensured.
Our world has now changed so far that the public has to prove why it needs to know any information about its government and go through an expensive and labour intensive process to acquire information that will arrive, if it arrives at all, after great delay and in a very censored form. Information on corporations is simply unattainable except by illegal methods as corporations, which include prison, intelligence, military, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and even police agencies, are considered private. These private corporations now own rights to global commons such as our oceans, space and electromagnetic field, as well as the individual environments of each of us.
A huge industry has built up around filtering, hoarding, spinning and occasionally doling out to the public in innocuous bits without context, all information about organizations and actions which effect the public. The true information that reaches the public is more than drowned out by the equally huge industry of misinformation being produced and distributed by the same public organizations. Our media exists to convince us that our right to information is actually a right to know whether an arbitrarily selected private citizen has had a haircut instead of a right to the information we need in order to govern ourselves.
Another massive industry exists to gather, store, analyze and distribute every conceivable detail of private information on private citizens. Private corporations gather and store information on every aspect of individual lives and make it available to any organization with the finances or skill to retrieve it. There is no discrimination in what is gathered as organizations have decided that any private information is an unknown unknown, they may just not know if they need it or not, so they need it all.
Legal changes and popular propaganda have created such oxymoronic beasts as public individuals and private corporations to cause confusion over these very clear violations of the two basic principles.
There is no such thing as a private organization, outside of purely social groups. There is no such thing as a public person, only public actions by private individuals.
Radical privacy and radical transparency
Under the current system, even when people become convinced of the soundness of the principles of privacy for individuals and transparency for organizations and actions which affect the public, they advocate a modified version of this rule as reasonable, the result of compromise and good sense, and not radical like a whole hearted embrace of the principles would be. They point to many situations where the principles in pure form simply would not work. Principles however, if they are sound at all, must work in all cases. If they do not, there is a fault either with the principle, or the case. The answer in our current society has been to reject the principles as nice ideas which we will keep in our legal foundations but ignore in reality as they are simply not practical. A more accurate answer may be found by looking at the cases where these two principles appear to produce poor results.
The release of the US state cables was widely condemned because of the release of the names of private individuals who were providing information to public organizations. The exposure of any private individual to harm must be regarded as an ill. But if harm had been caused, it would have been caused not by the action which abided by the principles but by the earlier actions in violation of the principles. The individuals in question had a right to privacy. Why were their names recorded and placed in an extremely public and easy to access database? Why were their names recorded at all? Why did those individuals need to make secret reports about public organizations or actions to other public organizations? If the principle regarding public organizations and actions was followed, there would be no need for informants. If the principle regarding privacy for individuals was followed, the names would never have been recorded.
Another case frequently brought forward is the harm to individuals by drug cartels in South America if the cartels knew about individuals who are reporting them. Under the current system, they already know, as do the state cable informant’s enemies. Once information about an individual is stored, the principle of individual privacy which ought to protect that individual has been ignored, leaving the individual completely exposed. Again, that individual ought also to be protected by the principle of transparency for public organizations. If the entire country was working together in a structure that allowed them to expose all actions of the drug cartels, the individuals would not need to be put at risk. If we apply the two principles from the beginning, they work in every hazardous situation I have heard of so far.
Law enforcement and military around the world have claimed the right to operate in complete secret as that is the only way to catch ‘the bad guys’. Transparency would enable the public to catch the bad guys on both sides. A public that was involved in helping to enforce laws could accomplish far more than a police force could by itself, as has been proven many times. Instead of blocking the entire internet under the pretense of blocking child porn sites, the police could just ask for the public to police the internet. If child porn or terrorist plotting sites can be found by anyone, they can be found by everyone, what is required is not secrecy and censorship but a proper structure for policing which involves the public as well. The only cases in which this would not work is when the law is not one the public agrees with, which is a great method of providing feedback that the law needs to be modified to represent the people more accurately.
Diplomats and others in positions of power have complained that transparency makes it difficult for them to do their jobs. Where that is the case, the fault must be found with their jobs. The current system is a massive, tangled tortuous mess of intelligence, media, spokespeople, communication departments, freedom of information laws and lobbies, actions and counteractions attempting to maintain balance in a system which preaches democracy and practices fascism. The dichotomy and confusion is caused by the current system, not the proposed one. Entire industries would be made redundant by adherence to the principle of transparency for public organizations. Transparency in its literal sense, not selected pieces of isolated information wrapped up and presented by an official, but full transparency, of the kind that would allow any passerby to see exactly what an organization was up to. As the current powers have been asking private individuals for decades, what do they have to hide?
The kind of radical transparency that private individuals have been exposed to needs to be turned on all organizations and actions which have any impact on the public. Individuals require a right to privacy. Collaborative society requires full knowledge of organizations and actions which affect the public.
All individuals have a right to privacy. All organizations and actions which affect the public must be completely transparent to the public. These principles do not work in isolation; the fault is not with the principles, but the isolation.