Nov 022010

Transparency is one of the great excuses of our era; the belief that something is correct as long as it is disclosed has been used to justify unethical or downright deceptive behaviour by groups ranging from financial advisors to gadget bloggers.

But is does transparency really excuse how we behave? Is a mugger who lets you know they are stealing your money more ethically correct than a pickpocket or shoplifter who steals it by stealth?

This idea of disclosure excusing everything was introduced by the financial industry in the 1990s, the idea being that an informed market can make rational decisions and if your advisor disclosed they were receiving kickbacks from a funds manager you could make an investment choice in the knowledge of this.

Of course this failed dismally, partly because these disclosures resulted in an avalanche of densely written, small font paperwork that became another level of opaqueness to baffle investors and consumers. The very concept of transparency was used to baffle people.

We saw this idea spread across the consumer economy where all manner of unfair contracts by telcos, finance companies and other service providers were justified by a nest of gotchas in their “transparent” contracts and terms.

On the Internet, the idea of transparency becomes even more complex. In theory we can Google anything and find the background of any individual or business but in reality we find the weight of information makes it harder to find the background of a comment or post.

Most people quite rightly can’t be bothered researching every post to see if the poster’s been taking freebies or convicted of spamming. It’s simply too time consuming an issue.

In a perverse way, search engines can make the web even more opaque as paid or sponsored web pages or blog posts crowd out objective views on an issue or business.

The danger is for most of us that the illusion of transparency lulls us into a false sense of security. As consumers, we think that all is well because there’s no obvious disclosure of conflicts of interest. If we have these conflicts of interest, we think they are okay because we’ve disclosed them in the fine print.

Either attitude can bring us unstuck when the conflicts become apparent and all the alleged transparency won’t save us from the damage to our wallets, reputations of trust.

Transparency’s important, but acting honestly and ethically is far more essential in a trust based society.

  2 Responses to “The illusion of transparency”

  1. “Transparency’s important, but acting honestly and ethically is far more essential in a trust based society.”

    This is “the stand out” statement for me in this Post, Paul.

    We need to act on our values, not shout about them. Integrity is the top of list whether for a person, acting professionally or personally or whether an entity or company.

  2. Thanks Paul,
    This transparency argument is of particular interest to me as a writer/communications specialist working in the NGO sector. We’re constantly conscious of the importance of transparency and trust, but it was such a relief to hear someone else saying …and then what?

    Transparency is important but toothless, without scrutiny to match.

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