Greater transparency does not mean removing all barriers and filters

Making the public and private sector less opaque should be about creating a more inclusive society, not a divisive, polarised one

FILE - In this April 11, 2018, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. A year ago, Shoshana Zuboff dropped an intellectual bomb on the technology industry. In a 700-page book, the Harvard scholar skewered tech giants like Facebook and Google with a damning phrase: “surveillance capitalism.” (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
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If there is an overarching trend that we have seen in the last decade, it is the call for transparency. Whether from individuals, businesses or governments, transparency is being demanded of public and private entities across the board.

Interestingly, due to the easy access to information, people today are more aware of both the dangers as well as the benefits of transparency, for which we can hold big tech accountable.

Facts are no longer premium and everyone can be held accountable for their opinions as if they were facts

For years, Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and others that make up big tech have set the boundaries of privacy. But with consumers demanding more transparency, a shift has begun and big tech can no longer continue to exert total control.

Consider also the sharing economy. People's demand for transparency from apps such as Uber, the ride-hailing firm, and Airbnb, the short-term rental site, has triggered a surge in expectations.

The traditional hospitality and car-rental industries were largely unquestioned about their policies. They were accustomed to dictating rules to customers who had little or no understanding of the laws of demand and supply. That has now been turned on its head and we are finally entering the era of transparency that was promised a quarter of a century ago with the advent of the world wide web.

If the legacy of the last 10 years has been the desire to take back control from a centralised system in order to address the problems of perceived inefficiency, inequality and failure, then the next challenge will be dealing with the reality of a decentralised, more accountable world.

Protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran have in part been driven in part by this – the demand for accountability.

As far back as 2006 when Wikileaks first emerged, we were seeing demands for greater transparency and accountability from institutions across societies.

However, as we head into 2020, we should also understand that the push for transparency has its drawbacks and brings with it individual and collective challenges.

Social media has shown us the dangers of sharing opinions and subjective analysis. Facts are no longer valued at a premium and opinions are often mistaken for fact. Saying what you mean, all the time, can be just as counterproductive as not saying anything at all. Transparency should not be about having no boundaries or filters. It should provide for a happier, more civil society, not an uglier, less inclusive one.

A large number of companies are already more transparent on several important issues: how they use our data, what they are doing or not doing about climate change and the level of diversity in their organisations.

Historically, we have tended to prioritise security and put information in silos. This is now giving way to understanding the benefits of pooling what we know so that there can be advancements in medicine, science and education.

Greater transparency is also the way to rebuild trust in our institutions and governments. This will ultimately be driven by the individual. Before deciding where to work or what to buy, employees and customers in the future will demand to know and need to be satisfied with a company's carbon footprint, the steps they have taken on climate change, their commitment to diversity, where and how ingredients and goods have been sourced, and measures to check carbon emissions or the levels of air pollution in the neighbourhood. If people are not given that information as a matter of course in an easy-to-digest manner, they will vote with their feet.

However, the idea of transparency goes beyond good corporate social responsibility or the ethics of a business. In the next decade, success will not be possible without an adherence to transparency about decisions taken and policymaking at every level. By the end of the 2020s, transparency will be a core value. It will be embraced individually and at the heart of any successful culture – just like generosity or tolerance.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National