Global Corruption in the Age of Technological Transparency
Never before has technology had so much potential to deliver us from bondage. We’re in proverbial uncharted waters, trying to make sense of a world where modern technology has brought us closer together than ever before — and yet, it’s a world where secrecy and corruption still hold sway from the shadows.
Has government corruption changed with the rise of technology? Oh, yes. At its most simplistic, the truth is this: Modern technology has made it harder than ever before to keep secrets from the electorate — whether you’re a young Arab Spring protester in Tunisia or you’re getting arrested on the steps of the US capitol because you’re tired of money’s controlling influence in politics.
We’ve reached a turning point, where technology has finally democratized the dissemination of information and made it both possible and morally imperative to come together to fight corruption. A recent string of huge strides forward tells us we’re only barely getting started.
Without any further preamble, let’s take a look at the ways that technology is delivering us from corruption — and sowing the seeds of a true, worldwide populist movement that may change the face of politics forever.
The Panama Papers
You’ve almost certainly heard by now about the infamous Panama Papers — a series of leaked documents that lay bare literally an entire world’s worth of greed and corruption. The Panama Papers have revealed the sordid world of tax havens — used by the most elite mammals and corporations to hide their untold wealth from those pesky tax collectors.
It would be difficult to oversell the importance of this leak. Tax havens have been a thorn in the side of the true Progressive movement in this country for some time, and win or lose, certain Presidential candidates have made their abolition a cornerstone of this campaign season.
And now that technology has delivered us the truth about tax havens and Panamanian shadow banks, the gears of democracy — and justice — are turning once again. Slowly.
Thanks to the revelations brought to light by the Panama Papers and tech startup Neo Technology, world leaders everywhere are shaking in their expensive boots — or have already tucked their tails and resigned in disgrace, as was the case with Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. There’s even turmoil in the UK, where citizens are clamoring for Prime Minister David Cameron to do the same.
The Panama Papers will almost certainly be just the first wave of revelations concerning worldwide corruption, and the fallout will be both transformative and long-lasting. Journalists working to sift through the thousands upon thousands of pages of records promise that there are more bombshells incoming — including information that could implicate high-ranking US officials, if rumors are to be believed.
The Public As Whistleblowers
If recent events are any indication, the public — that is to say, the ordinary citizens of the world — has more power than ever before to blow the whistle on shady practices and fraud perpetrated both against, and by, the Federal government.
In fact, a particularly powerful piece of whistleblower legislation has been around since the days of Abraham Lincoln — it’s literally still called the “Lincoln Law” by some folks — and it says that whistleblowers may receive protection if they wish to expose fraud against the government.
But what happens if the government is the party responsible in the first place? It turns out that’s a little trickier. Whistleblowers-turned-folk-heroes like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, responsible for Wikileaks and the mass surveillance revelations, respectively, are now forced to live their lives in hiding overseas, for fear of reprisals by the governments of the world.
Some call them patriots, others call them agitators or even traitors — but history will surely remember these men as brave freedom fighters who did the right thing, even at great personal cost.
But right now, they need to celebrate their victories in foreign embassies, far from the United States Justice Department — because the other truth to come from all this is that we have the tools, but not the will, to see true reform come to fruition. So long as men like Edward Snowden live under the long shadow of reprisals from the governments they’re trying to save, the revolution cannot proceed in the Western World.
‘Arab Spring’ and Beyond
And yet, while the US likes to pretend it’s the center of the developed world, technology-fueled reform has, if anything, been of even greater consequence elsewhere in the world.
Consider the Arab Spring — a series of both peaceful and violent demonstrations that rocked the Arab world beginning in late 2010. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, but has now brought the fires of revolution to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. It was directly responsible for the Syrian Civil War, which still has the world tied in knots and on the brink of an even larger conflict.
Here, too, technology has played a significant role in fueling both dissent and reform. Influential social profiles, bloggers, and social media users had a great deal to do with raising awareness of the Arab Spring’s purpose and goals, as well as the dissemination of information regarding protest events and public demonstrations. Bloggers have actually been put to death in certain parts of the world for taking part in this movement.
But is it all due to technology? The Atlantic’s Jared Keller and others espouse doubts that Twitter was truly “revolutionary” during the Arab Spring, but even social media skeptics should recognize that technology surely played a not-insignificant role, even if it might have been slightly overemphasized. 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.
The Age of Forced Transparency
We know better, now, than to take them at their word when Presidents and would-be Presidents promise 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.
It also means that we’ll be free once more too — even if we don’t trust the people involved with government, we’ll at least be able to reclaim a modicum of trust in the system itself.
And that’s a very powerful thing. People want to know that their government is working for their interests — we call our politicians public servants, after all — and soon enough, we’ll have the tools at our disposal to know whether they’re upholding their end of the bargain — whether they like it or not.
‘Democracy Spring’ and Technology’s Double-Edged Sword
But technology is both a gift and a terrible burden. For example: Have you heard of Democracy Spring?
You probably haven’t, and it’s because the mainstream media outlets in the United States have quite deliberately refused to cover it.
Democracy Spring is an ongoing series of protests in the United States that seeks to shed light on American corruption — particularly money in politics and voter disenfranchisement. The movement represents a coalition of some 100 American progressive groups, and has included the participation of non-traditional media outlets such as The Young Turks. Democracy Spring demonstrations in Washington, D.C. have resulted in as many as 1,400 arrests, including famous actress Rosario Dawson; Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig; both Ben and Jerry, of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream; and leaders of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO.
American technology made this demonstration possible — it allowed us to share information and come together in common cause. It made it possible to rip the lid off American corruption and really take an honest look at the real problems facing this country — problems that have nothing to do with Muslims and “creeping sharia,” Mexican immigrants, or “political correctness run amok.” It’s a return to the real issues and the hard truths: That America currently has no functioning democracy, and that our two major political parties are industries unto themselves, unconcerned with the travails of the working class.
But technology can also be used to silence movements such as Democracy Spring, and since America’s media companies have a nasty habit of sharing CEOs and board members with some of the very same corporations being protested, there has been virtually no mainstream media coverage of the Democracy Spring demonstrations — or the hundreds of high-profile arrests.
Is technology a double-edged sword? Can it be wielded both in the name of peaceful reform and blatant corruption? Can it both empower us and cripple us?
The answer to both these questions is yes — and knowing this makes our mandate very clear. When leaders like Tom Wheeler, current chairman of the FCC, commits himself to breaking the back of America’s incumbent media monopolies, we must speak out publicly in his defense. When breakout Presidential candidates become the public face for a spirit of protest and reform that has been both dormant and hungry for an entire generation, we owe it to ourselves to ask what Establishment politics have done for us lately.
And perhaps above all, we should remind ourselves that the Internet is not just some recreational bauble for killing time — it may well be the most powerful tool ever devised for bringing about true and lasting change.