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All companies need to be more transparent – it’s in everyone’s interest

By Simon Davies

I predict it’s only a matter of time before corporations feel the heat of public expectation to release more data about their operations. As people become more educated about privacy issues it is inevitable they will view disclosure of information as a key element of trust and accountability.

currently most of the important internal documentation we get to see has been either forced through disclosure to a court or simply leaked.

Some companies like 3M have already started embedding transparency into their internal culture. However currently most of the important internal documentation we get to see has been either forced through disclosure to a court or simply leaked. Companies will release selected data on their operations but such moments are still relatively rare. There is little or no culture of disclosure in the private sector.

The idea of accountability is important to many companies, particularly for those operating in the information realm. The “Galway process” was attended by many large corporations and was intended to articulate the core principles of accountability. Transparency was one of the five key elements identified by the project.

The idea of accountability is important to many companies, particularly for those operating in the information realm.

However there are no clear guidelines about how companies should enact transparency. The rules for most governments have been agreed, but no so for the private sector, which in most cases already enjoys blanket exemption from Freedom of Information laws.

This situation exists in part because of the cautious nature of large companies. Decisions such as whether to publicly release, say, technical specifications for a project require a committee-style decision across the company, with anyone empowered to blackball the release.

Here’s a case in point. Several years ago Google broke new ground by releasing global statistics on the requests made by government and police authorities for personal information held by the company. This was seen across Google as a positive move, particularly as it focused on government intruders.

However the second crucial part of the story – how Google deals with such requests and how it discloses the data – did not sit so comfortably with many people in the company. Yes, that data would be very helpful and enlightening, but many people at Google felt that such information placed too much of the spotlight on the company itself. Unlike government, there is no codified “public interest” for disclosure that can outweigh the companies own risk assessment.

Unlike government, there is no codified “public interest” for disclosure that can outweigh the companies own risk assessment.

More recently Microsoft’s then General Counsel, Brad Smith, made reference in a speech to polling conducted by the company that revealed a 75% support for measures to protect customers from online tracking by advertisers. Where is the actual research? It’s not that we don’t believe Microsoft (other polls have revealed a similar level of opinion) but releasing the polling data would argue Microsoft’s case more persuasively than simply mentioning the raw figures.

Of course companies conduct polling exercises continuously, and most were never intended for public release. Nevertheless, detailed data is better and healthier for discourse than selected headline data.

In 2012,Transparency International conducted a study to discover the most transparent companies in the world   Predictably perhaps, most of the highest performing companies are in the primary industries and oil and gas sectors, where substantial public pressure has been applied over the years for greater transparency.

As public interest in privacy grows it seems likely that similar dynamics will appear within companies in the information space. I’ll give it ten years until we see a palpable change, but the signs indicate that this change is inevitable.