Can the web help fight corruption?

October 21st, 2007 | by ian |

Lessig turns his keen insight and trademark presentation style towards the analysis of corruption as he steps away from 10 years of focusing on intellectual property issues and their impacts on culture, creativity and innovation. I wish him luck as he will have the full force of the political and business establishments fighting him to their eventual unlamented demise.

For a quick take on the hour long lecture, skip to 8:23, a story about how the sugar institute managed to influence the food nutrition board (FDA) to set the recommended maximum intake of sugar to 25% of your daily calories, instead of the WHO’s advised maximum of 10%. Hang on through 10:30 where he talks about how lobbyists have skewed the global warming “debate.” Other issues he covers are the pharmaceutical industry targeting doctors with “bribes that are not considered bribes” and the influence of private interest funding on “scientific” research. His bottom line is that everywhere we look, money determines decisions more than ever, often trumping what is in the interests of the citizens.

It all seems depressing, but what gives Lessig and the rest of us hope for democracy is the potential of the internet, particularly the web, to render the forces behind policy decisions more transparent and available to a wider population of stakeholders, namely the citizens (I know this is a shocking concept!). Perhaps the availability of hitherto inaccessible information will inspire more of the population to become politically involved. I’m not yet holding my breath on this one, but let’s dare to dream.

Towards the end of the lecture, Lessig highlights MapLight which exists to expose the relationship between legislators voting patterns and their sources of funding in US congress. Also featured is the Sunlight Foundation:

The mission of the Sunlight Foundation is to use the transformative power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing, and thus help reduce corruption, ensure greater transparence and accountability by government, and foster public trust in the vital institutions of democracy.

Aside: Canadians should check out the Data Libre project.

Corruption is a problem that is probably a human condition arising from social interaction and economics, unlikely to disappear, but perhaps like many of our weaknesses, it can be minimized. We are in the earliest days of the development of new tools that combine openly accessible data, visualization technology, and the reach of the web. It remains to be seen if they will help improve our democracy or become yet another system to be influenced and gamed by special interests.

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