This, in a nutshell, is why transparency and accountability are critical to democracy: the government, which is elected to represent the interests and welfare of its citizens, tells those citizens what it is doing so that if the government is not acting in citizens’ best interests, those citizens can take a variety of actions to pressure the government to act differently.
However, as we know, there is still a lot of government secrecy, even in advanced Western democracies. If citizens don’t know about the actions of their government, they can’t hold that government to account, short-circuiting the fundamental principle of democracy.
The Internet, with the particular dramatic example of Wikileaks, is good for transparency efforts and bad for secrecy because sharing secret information is so damned easy. Start a free blog, post your info, send out a few emails to let people know it’s there. If it really is important, there’s a good chance the mainstream media – or a heavily-read new media outlet – will find and amplify it.
This is exactly what happened when Nova Spivack, a technology futurist and serial Internet entrepreneur, got an invitation to the e-G8 Summit, a private Internet soirée that will take place tomorrow and Wednesday in Paris before the main G8 meeting in Deauville. Nova wrote on his blog:
I was recently honored to be invited by President Sarkozy of France to participate in the e-G8 Summit — a new and potentially useful summit of global Internet leaders, right before this year’s G8 Summit in Paris.
This event will bring together Internet leaders and political leaders, for two days of discussions about the Internet. The goal is to advise the G8 leaders on important issues related to the Internet.
However, when he did a search to find out more about the event, he couldn’t find much public info. “In researching and preparing for this,” he wrote, “I have found very little information about the event, who the other attendees will be, and what the real motivations for the event are.” He also noted, “for an event of this magnitude, it is somewhat surprising that there has not yet been any significant press coverage of it yet.” [emphasis his own].
So, like a good netizen, he posted on his blog the invitation, the agenda, and the guest list, “in the interest of transparency,” in what he believed was the first publication of these documents. That was on April 20th and, from the number of comments (16 as of writing) and “likes” (35 as of writing) it was likely read by the more intellectual branch of the start-up community – the people who already read his blog – but it didn’t cross over into the activists sphere and it didn’t go viral.
The Internet advocacy organization Access got wind of the story around the same time. Though they may have learned from Nova’s blog, there were other people invited to the e-G8 who had contacts with the Internet advocacy community, who also shared the details of the event, albeit privately.
Around the beginning of this month Access began working with other NGOs in this community to write a civil society letter to the e-G8 and they also set up a petition page calling for “the G8 to adopt citizen-centered internet policies.” Yesterday blogger Jillian York, who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, posted on the case, linking to both Nova and Access and giving some interpretation on the significance of it all:
…the absence of human rights and civil liberties groups–the absence of civil society, really–means that these participants won’t be held accountable at the table for their undoubtedly pro-business (and not necessarily human rights-oriented) ideals.
So how important was Nova’s public leak? Because of their personal contacts among the invitees, the internet advocacy orgs could have started a campaign with or without it, but they didn’t make the details of the event public in their calls to action, so Nova’s leak has value in informing citizens of the details of the event.
The takeaway here is that it is near-impossible to have a secret meeting of Internet folks. Though Nova noted in his blog post that there were only a few query results for the hashtag #eg8, there are now several tweets a minute, mostly from people actually in attendance. Although the organizers tried to make the event private, it will clearly be carried out very much in public and civil society will be watching.