Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Friendly Game of Hide and Seek

"Transparency" has become the watch word of the year.  Everyone wants it from someone else, yet everyone is simultaneously arguing that shining the bright light of transparency on their activities violates their privacy and security.  The battle lines are drawn. 

The NFL Players Association (excuse me, ‘trade association’) wants transparency from the owners so that the owner's claims of poverty can be verified.  The owners refuse to open their books, and negotiations have morphed into dueling court petitions. 

Julian Assange and his band of hacktivists have made it their cause to create transparency by force, outing governments and individuals via WikiLeaks.  In the Internet Age of democratization, they say, let the people decide what represents national security need and what does not.  Never mind that secrecy has both a dark and bright side.  Hopefully, we won’t learn which is which too late, after a guarded secret is divulged that allows bad actors to harm the innocent. 

 The TSA has a vested interest in transparency in the name of national security, but their version of transparency could be awkward for any gentlemen traveling by air after a quick dip in a cold pool.

Mark Zuckerburg is a multi-billionaire based on his strategy of granting marketing companies transparency to our personal preferences and interests, while simultaneously allowing no transparency to his privacy settings matrix.  Transparency and privacy are luxuries that the poor cannot afford.  If you’ve got a few million (billion) in the bank, these are valuable commodities to be protected.

The GOP and House Speaker John Boehner campaigned aggressively for more transparency into the sausage making process of designing and passing legislation.  "Bring in the C-SPAN cameras!" they thundered from the stump.  Boehner recently refused C-SPAN's request for cameras in the well of the House Chamber, citing the fact that the House already has their own cameras.  Apparently, running these cameras is a job that only a government employee can do.  This is one area where privatization is not on the table. 

The Bush administration made a mockery of transparency for 8 years, hiding shamelessly behind ‘national security’, ‘executive privilege’ and other such canards to protect them from scrutiny.  Remember the secret energy task force led by Cheney?  Cheney famously argued that his office wasn’t subject to the laws of the land, since the Vice-President’s office was neither part of the legislative or executive branches of government.  This was all in the name of avoiding transparency, his alleged patriotic duty.

Ah, but there are two sides to this coin, aren’t there?  When does secrecy become substituted for an executive’s ability to hear unfiltered opinions?  Once meeting attendees with the Vice President know that their brainstorming session will be transcribed and posted on Huffington Post, the free exchange of ideas ends.  Creativity stops.  Innovation ceases.  America loses.  Not good.

Finally, the greatest irony of all: President Obama received an award last week for promoting transparency within government, and in a twist worthy of a headline in The Onion, the award ceremony was private, closed to the media.  Everything in moderation, I guess, when it comes to transparency.

This is the battle of our generation, and the concepts of privacy and transparency are getting muddled in the public tweets that represent 21st century discourse.  Here’s what I believe:  Institutions should have transparency; individuals should have privacy.  Individuals can voluntarily give up their privacy right(s) (i.e. posting their information on a blog site); individual members should demand transparency of the institutions of which they have an ownership stake (i.e. taxpayer’s ownership of government). 

The vexing question remains, when does privacy end and the public interest begin?  That line is unclear and amorphous, changing shape as the question becomes more personal.  The answer to that question often rests with your political opinion of the particular issue under discussion, and that leads to inevitable cries of hypocrisy from the opposition.  We generally lean towards privacy when we are asked for transparency; we leans towards transparency when the other side is too private.  No one is more private and secretive than a thief, of course.   

I believe that there is no universal absolute answer to questions of limiting privacy and transparency when searching for safety and accountability.  I think I will go along with Judge Potter Stewart, who famously defined pornography with the statement, “I know it when I see it.”  For me, the same is true of the invisible line between my rights and your responsibilities.  I know it when I see it.


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