Global Corruption in the Age of Technological Transparency

Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is a writer and journalist based in Washington DC. She loves to share her thoughts on the intersection of politics and culture, and writes on everything from feminism and human rights to climate change and technology.

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46 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    There’s a lot here to go though:

    Tax havens. Tax avoidance is not illegal. Hell, if I had enough money, I’d be doing it. Apple does it. Most corporations can do it, routing revenue through lower tax countries rather than their home country. Tax dodging is another thing.

    Public whistle blowers: “but history will surely remember these men as brave freedom fighters who did the right thing, even at great personal cost.” Maybe. History is written by the victors, and if the world sinks into oppressive gov’t control, the would will remember this, if at all, as criminals. You know it’s still illegal for someone with a security clearance to read classified documents even if they are in the public domain? I can’t speak for other countries, but america has not embraced public whistle blowers. The last two admins have prosecuted them very harshly.

    Forced transparency: “and that’s why the best news to come out of the tech world in recent memory is the fact that governments will soon not have much of a choice but to be transparent. The age of forced transparency is here, and it means secrets will only become harder and harder to keep.” You want to back that statement up with something Holly? Because I’m not seeing a “forcing mechanism”. Everyone knows how to slow roll FOIA, security classifications still exist, and if the gov’t ensures that public encryption such, only they will have better encryption.

    Democracy Spring. “problems that have nothing to do with Muslims and “creeping sharia,” Mexican immigrants, or “political correctness run amok.” ” SOME people actually view those issues as real issues. The fact that you don’t isn’t really relevant. Some might even choose to say they are more important than corruption, or perhaps more easily fixed.

    “That America currently has no functioning democracy, and that our two major political parties are industries unto themselves, unconcerned with the travails of any other class.” I fixed that statement for you, and I do agree on that.

    Yah, I’ve seen a whole lot of monopoly busting by the FCC. Oh, set to boxes to be made avail for purchase by customers. Wow. You want to end telecom monopoly, get two or three cable / internet providers for each county. Making set top boxes purchasable is small peanuts compared to that.

    ” it may well be the most powerful tool ever devised for bringing about true and lasting change.” Oh it’s already done that. Porn is free. Shopping is easier. Talk to me when we get 100% sure communications. My pessimism might change then.

    But this was a good post, my negativism aside, and I’m interested to see the conversation is generates.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Damon says:

      “You know it’s still illegal for someone with a security clearance to read classified documents even if they are in the public domain?”

      What? No it isn’t. If someone told you that, they’re wrong.

      It *is* illegal for someone with who sees a classified document that is being displayed and discussed in public to treat that document as though it has actually been declassified, until they’re notified that it has been. The idea being that while of course everyone knows about it, you might know more than is actually in that document, and if you go around talking about it you might reveal something that isn’t actually known. You can *read* the document all you like, you just can’t *talk* about it.

      Classification is like keeping kosher; the majority of the rules are about putting a barrier between yourself and an actual mistake.Report

      • Damon in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Your answer is more correct than my comment, but I seem to recall during the whole wikileaks thing our security office stating that looking at the site could cause legal trouble for the company and the just reading it.

        They blocked the site shortly thereafter.Report

        • Maribou in reply to Damon says:

          There’s also a difference between “illegal to read it” and “will lose your security clearance, and thus your job, for reading it”. The latter being what most folks with security clearances are anxious to avoid, I surmise.Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Damon says:

          The basic view was “Just because it’s been leaked to the public doesn’t mean it’s declassified, so if you’re talk about that stuff that’s in the papers it we’re going to consider you to be spreading classified material and we can fire you, revoke your security clearance, or even arrest you”. (Not that we had security clearances. We had to pass rather thorough background checks after 9/11, but we were all ‘sensitive’ data not classified)

          They did not split hairs or say it was to prevent “further leaks”. They flat out said (at least that was the briefing I got, working through a government contractor at the time) that they considered it STILL classified and thus discussing it (even if you had no access to the original information) was disseminating classified material. I know that they didn’t mean “We don’t want you to leak stuff that hasn’t been leaked by accident” because we were explicitly told this in response to the drone leaks and nobody they were talking to had ANY access to anything within shouting distance of the military.

          They might as well (and for all I know DID) give this lecture to the guys working in HUD or the IRS, because all we could know was what was in the papers.

          And we got told that talking about it at work, reading about it at work, or otherwise even hinting about it was firing grounds and/or felony charges for revealing classified information.

          They were never going to charge anyone, of course. PR would be way too bad. (And honestly, the guy — civil servant — laying down the rules was practically eye-rolling himself. He was not hiding the fact that this was obviously coming down from on-high, from screaming people in DoD and CIA trying to futilely pretend it wasn’t happening and also to hopefully prevent future leaks by means of stupid threats to everyone and their dogs too)

          The overreaction was ridiculous, and it’s one reason I eyeroll any time Clinton’s “classified emails” stuff comes up. I wasn’t shocked at ALL to hear that it included people talking about a NYT article on drone strike’s. I’d been told the same thing. Personally. By a government civil servant who thought the whole thing was just as stupid as everyone else did.

          FYI, it took years before certain names didn’t automatically block news stories or web pages.Report

          • Damon in reply to Morat20 says:

            Yep, that seems accurate. My recollection was we had no briefing, just an email from security. And we have a secured facility with lots of cleared folks where I was then. Thank god I never got a clearance.Report

            • notme in reply to Damon says:

              When the wikileaks stuff came out, there was a mass Army email telling us not to look at the site b/c of the classified info. It reminded us that just b/c the info was made public didn’t mean that it had been declassified.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Morat20 says:

            It’s the sturm und drang over wiki leaks et al that upper management put on middle management that ticks me off so much about the Clinton emails. I was the eye rolling middle manager that towed the lion and had to tell my peeps and then enforce all the reactionary new rules about what was going on.

            Now, I see that upper management didn’t give two snot boogers about the rules, not if it was inconvenient. (I mean I’m not that terribly suprised, upper mil management on Afghanistan staffs played the same game of rules for thee but not for me, but I thought that was just the Army being the Army.)Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Morat20 says:

            “The basic view was “Just because it’s been leaked to the public doesn’t mean it’s declassified, so if you’re talk about that stuff that’s in the papers it we’re going to consider you to be spreading classified material and we can fire you, revoke your security clearance, or even arrest you”.”

            yeah that’s actually something you explicitly agree to when you sign the paper that says “you’re briefed”. It’s not some crazy weird overparanoid condition they just invented out of thin air.

            “…we got told that talking about [Snowden] at work, reading about it at work, or otherwise even hinting about it was firing grounds and/or felony charges for revealing classified information.”

            I have never, ever, ever ever EVER seen anyone suggest anything like this. I mean, sure, you say it happened to you, I can’t say “nuh-uh”, but I can say that I haven’t ever seen anything like it happen anywhere that I’ve worked. And nobody has ever implied that someone could lose a security clearance just for reading something published in unclassified sources.

            Now. That’s not to say we were encouraged to go around typing classified terms that we knew into Google, or to go onto blogs and leave comments like “oh hey, you guys are wrong about this particular piece of classified information but I can’t say any more (wink)“. But it’s not at all the case that there was some general statement of “you’re not allowed to acknowledge the existence of Edward Snowden and you’ll go to jail if you do”. If anyone said that, they were way off base.Report

            • Morat20 in reply to DensityDuck says:

              yeah that’s actually something you explicitly agree to when you sign the paper that says “you’re briefed”. It’s not some crazy weird overparanoid condition they just invented out of thin air.

              They point was they were telling it to people who HADN’T been briefed. Whose only connection to the information was that we had a contract with the same government, albeit so far away that the only group more ludicrous to connect would have been Fish and Wildlife.

              They blocked everything — including news articles (the NYT wasn’t accessible for days until they got the key words set up to just block articles). It was always fun to have a “block” message on a google search because somehow your search triggered a result that had some vague keyword. (Turns out “drone” is also a verb, for instance).

              And indeed, they flat out told us they’d revoke our access to government sites if we were caught talking or emailing about it. Which was “firing us” because I couldn’t do my job if I couldn’t wander onto government property when I needed to deal with something.

              And what makes you think they CARED they were way off base? Every employer I’ve had for twenty years has made sure I knew that discussing compensation with other employees would get me canned. I didn’t even know that was an illegal threat (I could sue if I was fired under such grounds, quite successfully — assuming they were dumb enough to claim that was the reason) for years.

              The threat against our job was the point. The “possible felony charges” were just the extra stick, because even then these morons thought they could sweep it up somehow and so the CIA and DoD screamed at every other segment of government in a futile attempt to uncrap the bed.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Morat20 says:

                ” what makes you think they CARED they were way off base? ”

                The point is not whether THEY cared, the point is to refute Damon’s statement about “…it’s still illegal for someone with a security clearance to read classified documents even if they are in the public domain”, and your story about it as well. They’re being presented as the Actual Way Things Really Work Because America Is The Most Awful Place, and it really is not like that at all.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Is it illegal?

                That’d be an interesting case. Do you have any court cites on hand?

                Now I get a little fuzzy where “illegal” and “firing” get involved when it comes to national security (especially with all those secret courts) but I think we can agree that, for instance, that Bob the Analyst isn’t allowed to go digging through desks looking to snoop through classified material he’s not cleared for.

                Is that illegal? Or just cause for termination? I really AM fuzzy on this.

                (In any sense, that was the logic used. Reading the NYT article was akin to reading classified material left inadvertently out).Report

            • Kolohe in reply to DensityDuck says:

              We were told specifically, on super special secret goverment twitter, not to talk about Snowden (anymore) nor even mention his name a la Voldemort.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Damon’s post indicates why doing anything about global corruption is not going to be easy. The key line is “if the world sinks to oppressive gov’t control.” To people on Damon’s side of the ideological spectrum, the solution to these issues or problems is to reduce the power and scope of government in order to preserve freedom as they see it. To people leaning towards my side of the ideological spectrum that is only going to exasperate things because it will give the wealthy and powerful even more license to run riot because the one institution capable of checking them and reigning them in, at least potentially, would no longer be able to do so. As Damon pointed out, tax havens are not illegal and neither were most of the shenanigans that gave us the Great Depression. Our solution is better rather than less government. Better government is an oxy moron to many people though.Report

    • Damon in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I’m all for better government. In fact, I think we’d need less of it if it was better! I’m unclear on how to actually accomplish that though, given human nature.Report

      • Kim in reply to Damon says:

        Make a better game (this is what I get from listening to a game theorist, naturally — but as he’s also experienced in the art of blackmail… and rather more heavily into politics than I am) — have politicians be more responsible to the voters, destroy and disable machine politics, find ways to disincentivize voters voting for people simply because “I know the name”.Report

        • Damon in reply to Kim says:

          That’s a lot work for such a tiny amount of words. Maybe find a way to incentive voters rather than a disincentive?

          I’d expect this process would take decades and I’m not even sure it’s possible. Might be better to just let the current system fall apart and start anew.Report

          • Kim in reply to Damon says:

            We let the current system fall apart, and it falls down hard, Damon.
            What do you think happens if we lose the globally networked economy?

            There’s a pretty easy set point of technology that you can get back to, without terribly much work — that’s about 1820’s tech. Iron, dirty iron (steel), coal, horses and steers.

            Past there? we’ll see.

            Incentivizing voters is a decent idea — the more you’re running actual issues, rather than names — the better you get actual results. It’s really easy to get “I am an X” tribal identity mode on, if you’re running names.Report

            • Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

              Even the Fury Road had petrol powered internal combustion engines.Report

              • Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

                I live near Slippery Rock. We’d probably still be able to get oil out, hereabouts. Not so in most places stateside.

                Without a global economy, internal combustion engines may still exist, but expect to see their use rationed very very heavily.Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    Lee has it right on the Panama Papers. The problem as I see it is that events and facts really don’t matter. I’ve been in a cynical mood lately. What revelations like the Panama Papers do is merely act as another point that shores up a person’s ideological beliefs.

    People see the revelations of the Panama Papers as being that we need more government, more oversight, and we need this to prevent the off-shoring of taxable incomes. The libertarian and right-wing side see the lesson as being taxes are too damn high or that there is nothing wrong with moving capital off-shore and it should be easier for everyone to do so.

    Most people do not have strong ideologies even if they are partisan and regular voters. A whole slew of things goes into their calculus from geography to identity and family history. It seems that the United States does have enough firm ideologues and partisans on all sides to prevent change and reform more often than not.Report

  4. Kolohe says:

    but history will surely remember these men as brave freedom fighters who did the right thing, even at great personal cost.

    or Assange as a sexual predator that threw his main source and his entire organization under the bus for self promotion and self preservation. And Snowden as the guy who took refuge under the guy most implicated by the Panama papers.

    The Young Turks

    which has the same name as the dudes that did the Armenian Genocide, and one of whom is skeptical that it happened.

    Ben and Jerry

    then used their corporate resources to speak out about their arrest protesting that people are using corporate resources to speak out about stuff.

    That America currently has no functioning democracy,

    If my eyes were rolling any harder, I could hook them up to an electrical generator to recharge my phone.Report

    • Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

      Your first mistake is thinking that Assange is anything other than a figurehead.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Kolohe says:

      IIRC, the Young Turks were also darkly talking about how Hillary stole NY just last week (it veered between “Closed primaries are suppressing my vote!” to “Hillary scrubbed 120,000 Bronx voters!”. I think they were talking up some lawsuit). It’s hard to take them seriously, you know, when they use the language of voter suppression and rebellion to talk about the jackbooted thugs of a closed primary.

      Meandering back to the point — I admit to wondering who leaked the Panama Papers and why. The lack of Americans is still interesting, but I get the impression Panama isn’t where Americans go to hide money anyways.Report

      • Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

        “I admit to wondering who leaked the Panama Papers and why.”
        for once, I haven’t actually heard anything…make of that what you willReport

      • Kolohe in reply to Morat20 says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the founding partners, due to each’s varied and colorful CV’s.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Morat20 says:


        The states of Delaware and Wyoming will gladly let Americans set up shell corporations.

        American states compete among themselves for tax avoidance. New Jersey is wondering about budget shortfalls because a billionaire resident is moving to Florida. NYC charges their own income tax. The rule is something like if you spend 181 nights a year in NYC, you have to pay it. There are lots of rich people with fancy NYC housing but are officially residents of Connecticut or PA.

        Lots of NYC apartments are also officially owned by shell companies to hide the identities of owners

        The interesting thing about a lot of comReport

      • North in reply to Morat20 says:

        The lack of significant American presence is not surprising to me. American tax levels are pretty low by global standards, the IRS is pretty decent at ferretting out tax dodgers and the penalties for getting busted are sharp. The risk/reward ratio is a lot different for Americans.Report

        • Kim in reply to North says:

          “the penalties for getting busted are sharp”
          you have no evidence for this, because within the past 10 years, the IRS did this whole “forgive the tax evaders” thing where Romney and a bunch of other people got off scot-free for hiding stuff in overseas accounts. (This is why he’s never released his income tax forms. It’s on there in black and white).Report

          • North in reply to Kim says:

            Forgiveness is an entirely different kettle of fish Kimmie, that’s where the IRS basically says “We’re gonna just turn our back and when we turn back around the cookies had better be all on the table in which case we’re not gonna raise a fuss.”Report

  5. Kim says:

    Harder to keep secrets from the electorate???? Please.

    You can’t even tell me who’s blackmailing Paul Krugman.Report

  6. Kim says:

    “The Panama Papers will almost certainly be just the first wave of revelations concerning worldwide corruption”

    Wikileaks was waving around Swiss bank accounts with names attached years ago.Report

  7. Kim says:

    ” history will surely remember these men as brave freedom fighters who did the right thing, even at great personal cost.”

    Hopefully we’re not going to lionize more figureheads like Rosa Parks, despite your hagiography.Report

  8. Kim says:

    ” The truth is, in countries where media channels are either suppressed or outright owned by the government, less traditional means of communication (Twitter, blogs, etc.) have been absolutely indispensable for demonstrators with revolution in mind.”

    Yes, blenders and microwaves make great means of communication.
    Speak Truth to Power!

    [You might say that I’m enjoying being a bit more cryptic than normal, because I’m pretty damn sure you aren’t going to be able to cite the country.]Report

  9. Burt Likko says:

    I’ve already addressed Edward Snowden’s ambiguity thoroughly and well: he exposed things that needed exposure, like the prevalence of abuse of surveillance technology and the overuse of secrecy classifications. But he also did so in a manner that indiscriminately made public other things that maybe ought to have remained secret: information gathering techniques and methods of not identities of human intelligence assets (“spies” to us, “traitors” to those whose secrets they provide us).

    Snowden is a microcosm of the phenomenon @holly-Whitman chronicles. Having become addicted to secrecy, breaking ourselves of it promises to be uncomfortable at best. We can endure individual politicians’ disgraces — but can we endure it when we discover, as @damon correctly points out, that much that was unseemly in the shadows turns out to not be illegal at all?

    We already have a hard time with politically “pre-convicting” disliked figures and then being outraged when an actual court fails to sliver a guilty verdict for reasons we do not understand. We are quick to say such a result is the product of corruption and elite privilege rather than the system working as intended. Much more of this is in our future — as the OP points out. Perhaps it is possible that all the information this democratized technology disseminates will over-catalyze changes to the system itself offered in the name of “reform” and we cud lose as much freedom here as we gain over there.

    Sobriety and calm are advisable, though these are the opposite of both the current mood in the body politic and the opposite of that which feeds necessary reforms.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Isn’t the old line, the real scandal is what is legal.

      I suppose the question is really about who set up the system and for what benefit. Maybe all the actions revealed by the Panama Papers are legal and the system working as intended. But many people feel like this system working was set up by the already rich to keep themselves as such. Meanwhile the rest of us getting moralizing messages about tightening our beltsReport

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Liberal sites regular get into fights on why the people who gave us the Great Recession weren’t indicted and prosecuted. There actions might have been reckless but they seem to be legal. You can’t prosecute somebody who did not break the law even if they did something that they should not do.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

          I agree but you can argue and fight for the laws to be changed. The system might work as intended but that does not make it right or moral.Report

        • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

          They weren’t killed because they didn’t actually destroy the global economy.
          Legality is of little concern when people are actively destroying significant quantities of the world’s entire population.Report

  10. Kim says:

    “The age of forced transparency is here, and it means secrets will only become harder and harder to keep.”
    This is hilarious. Do you know anything about cryptography?

    Actually, I’ll write a post on “Why we ought to support Trump this General Election” if you can intelligently analyze Eliot Spitzer’s “fall from grace.” And that’s something that’s bloody obvious if you use a bit of common sense.

    You are relying on people “inside” to report things (unless you’re actually supporting Anonymous). But the problem with that is that even someone being forcibly tortured can have reasons to not report it. Given that, it’s genuinely hard to find A Person of Conscience (particularly for something stupid and minor, like you need to bribe the housing authority to get a building permit).Report

  11. James K says:

    I don’t think corruption is a useful lens to describe the tax avoidance strategies outlined in the Panama papers. Instead there are two different things going on here:

    1) Tax law isn’t full of exploits because it was designed that way to benefit a cadre of wealthy international elites, it’s full of exploits because any set of cadged-together rules that builds up over time will naturally trend toward becoming a bloody mess. Since there’s a lot of money to be made in finding the points where this giant pile of kludges produces low tax bills, a market of people who can help others use these exploits springs up. Rich people have more potential tax to avoid, so they are the ones with the strongest incentives to pay people to help them avoid tax. The only way to fix this problem is to remove the ticket of special breaks and deductions and differential rates that create the exploits in the first place. A simple tax code puts tax consultants out of business.

    2) In practice, a tax haven is a country that chooses to levy less tax than other countries think they should. The Panamanian government is under no obligation, legal or moral, to act as a tax agent for the UK, or the US or anyone else. If other countries want Panama to be more accommodating in their tax laws, why not try offering them something of value in exchange for what you are asking them to give up. I know threats are more authentically American, but why not try being nice for one, for the novelty value if nothing else.Report

    • j r in reply to James K says:

      I know threats are more authentically American, but why not try being nice for one, for the novelty value if nothing else.

      Yes. It’s called FATCA ( And it can make it quite difficult for Americans living overseas to find a bank willing to open an account.

      By virtue of our political and military power and by virtue of the central role of the dollar and the U.S. financial system, United States foreign policy leans heavily on what are essentially threats (FATCA, sanctions, designations etc). It can be effective, but it’s also probably speeding up the process of other countries designing financial arrangements that sidestep the U.S. financial system. Although, in the long run this may be a good thing for Americans.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to James K says:

      Simple tax codes?! What is wrong with you? Do you know how many lobbyists and tax attorneys and accountants would have to find new work if we simplified the tax code?

      Why do you want to put those poor people out of a job? Think of the lobbyists! They have waterfront condos they have to pay for!Report

  12. j r says:

    @james-k makes a good point above. The word corruption is nebulous, even more so when we deal with it in common usage. We use it to talk about everything from quid pro qou bribes and payoffs to the appearance of too cozy a relationship between interests to malfunctioning bureaucracies.

    The Panama Papers thing is interesting. My guess is that nothing that comes out of it will be as big as the initial splash. From what I can tell, there are three types of actors implicated; there are (1) bad guys using offshore to hide their ill-gotten gains, think Putin and his cronies; (2) good guys using tax havens to hide from the bad guys, think Putin’s political enemies; and (3) the sort of tax dodging that most people think of when this topic comes up. We already know that the first group are bad guys. Knowing how they hide their money is helpful, but I’m not sure it overshadows how they get their money. As for the second group, not sure anyone will care how some high profile person from a shady person uses a hidden bank account to pay for his kid’s school tuition so that she can’t be traced.

    The third category is where the obvious interest is. I guess we’ll see how big that category is. The Icelandic PM’s story is interesting in that it’s not obvious why he was hiding money offshore. Was it to get around capital controls? Evading capital controls is a big deal if you’re the head of government, but does anyone care if a private citizen does it? I guess we will see how this plays out.Report

    • Holly Whitman in reply to j r says:

      j r:
      Evading capital controls is a big deal if you’re the head of government, but does anyone care if a private citizen does it?

      I’m definitely interested in seeing the wider implications of events such as this. Will it result in a crackdown on these measures or countries making global pacts to rat out individuals? Or instead, will it result in a public consensus of “well, they did it so why can’t I?” We shall see, although I’m more inclined to lean towards the latter given the public outcry over many of the implicated individuals. Not to mention global governments favoring hardline approaches.Report

    • Damon in reply to j r says:

      “Evading capital controls is a big deal if you’re the head of government, but does anyone care if a private citizen does it?”

      If it’s LEGAL, I got no issue, especially if 1) the “civilian” population can do it 2) given my general low opinion of politicians.Report