Last month, Debating Europe interviewed Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, and asked him about an internal audit report on MEPs expenses that was recently published by the European Parliament and had been doing the rounds in the blogosphere. The report has been the source of quite some controversy, with the Parliament originally moving to block its publication on the grounds that the sensitive nature of the findings might “derail the debate on the reform of the system.” Peter Eigen was not impressed:
I think [the statement issued by the European Parliament Bureau of Presidents] is an absolutely crazy statement, and would fit very well into a cabaret routine. It’s like a thief telling you, if you catch me now it makes it very difficult for me to steal! … It is neither a technically nor a politically sensible statement.
This week, we spoke to Diana Wallis, UK Liberal Democrat MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament responsible for transparency. The “absolutely crazy” statement from the Parliament Bureau was sent under Wallis’ name as part of her function as Vice President, but she made it clear to us that her personal preference had always been to release the report publicly.
We asked her, though, whether the statement was really such a crazy one. Are there not limits to government transparency?
Yes, there are limits. When transparency conflicts with individual fundamental rights. There can be commercial reasons; there can be reasons for people’s personal safety; there can be issues of copyright or something else. There are rights that need to be respected with transparency. So far as we are dealing with the making of legislation, however, the public ought to be able to see clearly into the process.
What about the case of Wikileaks? The organisation recently dumped unredacted diplomatic cables online, potentially putting the lives of informants and activists at risk. Peter Eigen nevertheless saw Wikileaks as a very positive force and argued that the responsibility for protecting highly sensitive information ultimately lay with the authorities in charge of it. What do you think of this position?
I think there are two sides to this. On the one side of this I think Wikileaks is a positive development, because some of the documents that were released earlier could have been a spur to the Arab Spring. So, transparency can be a good force and a force for change. Up until now, however, when information from the cables had been released it was done through traditional media outlets that spent time carefully redacting things to make sure nothing was revealed that might put anyone in harm’s way. My fear is, however much I want to champion transparency, that without any kind of code of conduct that we operate under it can potentially put people in danger.
Isn’t this a problem with technology simply moving faster than government? Perhaps the internet is simply ungovernable and we have to accept that.
The internet isn’t the Wild West. However, I’ve long been concerned, without over-egging it, because there are a lot of regular people – not superstars and celebrities – whose lives can be absolutely ruined by being blasted on the internet by somebody that doesn’t like them. The difficulty about getting redress is something that worries me a lot.
So what needs to be done? You mentioned the need for a code of conduct online. Do we need something like a “register for bloggers” as some countries have proposed?
I would rather just say that there is need for some form of mechanism to allows people who are unjustly marked down on the internet to do something about it. Where they can go in some way to complain and get things taken down. As somebody who has spent years as a lawyer, I’d prefer it was not done through the mainstream courts – but rather through some kind of mediation; something softer that actually gets results. Because I don’t want to see the courts clogged up with cases. Yet we do need a mechanism that allows that balancing of rights.
What do YOU think? Bloggers and social network users are not journalists, but does that mean they should also be freed of any sort of ethical code of conduct? Is the internet ungovernable? And was Wikileaks right to release unredacted diplomatic cables online in the name of transparency? Let us know in the form below and we’ll take your comments to experts and policy-makers for their reactions.