What Happens When Transparency Goes Wrong?

by Jason Falls |
Jason Falls
Jason Falls

When I was young I had a problem with honesty. Tall tales, fibs and all-out lies were the unfortunate manifestation of my creative energy and need for acceptance. Fortunately, I grew up along the way and realized dishonesty wasn’t the way to win friends.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I’m so far to the left of most people when it comes to openness, honesty and transparency. I see nothing wrong with peeling back the curtain all the way, not just letting people have a peek. I’ve recommended more transparency to clients than they’re probably comfortable with. I’ve live-streamed from my post-surgery hospital bed and I’m not shy about sharing personal details via Twitter, blog or other methods.

However, while I may have few limits from a personal perspective, there is a line that, when crossed, makes transparency go wrong. Case in point: Someone created a Google Maps mashup with the address information for contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign. The measure recently passed and overturned the state’s legalization of gay marriage. The names and addresses of the financial contributors to the proposition’s campaign are a matter of public record, so the mashup’s creator hasn’t done anything wrong, other than the ethical hang-up of not identifying themselves. But the effort places those contributors squarely in the cross-hairs of those interested in harassment or even retribution for opposing gay marriage.

Protesters in San Francisco campaign for marri...
Image via Wikipedia

On one hand, there are those that say the contributors should be proud of their stance and shouldn’t be bothered by their more-than-expected public outing. But look at this through a wider-angle lens. If supporters of a gay marriage proposal in, say, Birmingham, Ala., were publicly outed in similar fashion, you may as well earmark those houses for vandalism and the residents for harassment.

(I lived in Birmingham for five years. I’m qualified to make that criticism. Homosexuals in the deep south are about as welcome and tolerated as African-Americans were in the 60s.)

As adamant as I am that information should be free and companies and individuals should be open and transparent, those of us who advocate that stance must come to terms with one disturbing, but salient point:

There will always be those who will treat information irresponsibly.

The world we live in is not perfect. San Francisco, California, America and the planet in general are all full of well-intended, normal people, but also dotted with wing-nuts and sociopaths who will take it upon themselves to, “do something about,” those who disagree with them.

We cannot call ourselves responsible if we put our fellow man in jeopardy over principle.

And if you need further proof, Tech power broker Michael Arrington of TechCrunch announced last week he was taking a leave of absence after someone spat in his face at a conference in Germany. He disclosed he also received death threats from a gun-toting, convicted felon last year. While I would not classify Michael Arrington as, “just a blogger,” since he is the founder and editor of perhaps one of the most influential and power-wielding media publishing tools in the technology industry, he’s just a guy whose blog got big. No offense to Arrington, who I respect greatly and hope he comes back full force, but he’s not someone worth getting your panties in a wad over because he didn’t write about your crappy idea.

The point is that our world isn’t 100-percent sterile. We cannot assume that information alone can’t hurt people because allowing that information to be had puts it in the hands of people who can hurt people.

But what are the limits? Is the Google Mashup author liable if a pro-Prop 8 supporter is assaulted or worse? Should this type of manipulation of public information be permitted? Should it be monitored or limited by the government?

While I’m apt to say, “no,” I’m also convinced that we as a people often can’t police ourselves, which is really why government exists.

I still stand on the principle that information should be free and that we the people should be trusted with it. But those of us in social media and technology advocating for an open-source world need to be mindful of what that sometimes gets us.

A penny for your thoughts. The comments are yours.

NOTE: For more discussion on these issues, hear me, Mark Story and Jennifer Zingsheim wax poetic on them and other topics on last week’s Media Bullseye Roundtable here.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).