You’ve heard the refrain “we live in the information age.” We have fingertip access to the Internet, providing us with massive amounts of information. There are no longer any excuses for us to say we don’t have the information; it is there, but up to us to act on the information.
The above is all true but very incomplete. Information technology (IT), now the supplier of millions of jobs, does not have its own value-based imperative. The power structure is very selective about what this technology can access so as to keep the power in its concentrating corporate and governmental hands.
For an example, you need only look to how franticly government agencies react when whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden tear aside the curtains and reveal widespread mischief or criminal activity.
Consider a sample of what a selective information age keeps away from our fingertips, away from the Cloud, and away from your smartphones:
1) Consumer contracts that bind you and tie your rights and bargaining power in knots are often not available to you. You can sometimes see summaries of what Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem. Mass) calls “mice print” (multi-page contracts written in small-print legalese), but you can’t find the entire contract behind your airline, train or bus ticket, your insurance coverage, even your bank accounts or other business you conduct in the marketplace. Naturally this fine print can take you to the cleaners, exclude you from your day in court, fine you and allow vendors to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement.
2) As taxpayers you can get the summaries of many of the $500 billion worth of federal contracts with corporations, but you usually can’t get the full text online. You can get some of them if you ask and wait, but most of the bloated or controversial contracts, such as those that are common in the defense industry or the corporate welfare business, remain secret or hidden.
3) Many of the products and chemicals in your food are labelled. But lots more are not, including food from genetically engineered crops and other ingredients known to the producers or processors.
4) Getting your full medical records that you or your insurance company paid vendors to compile can be a real hassle. Inscrutable lengthy medical bills, replete with codes and fraud, hide what should be clear itemization for the patients to review. Harvard University expert, Malcolm Sparrow, estimates that computerized billing fraud and abuse are at least ten percent of all health care expenditures. This year that will total over $270 billion down the drain. You would think with all that waste they would make it easier for patients to review their bills, but not in the selective information age.
5) Compared to a generation ago, it is hard even to get the telephone numbers for the offices of heads of corporations. In some cases, you can’t even telephone their secretaries and staff.
Limiting access to complaint handlers makes it difficult to complain effectively, to receive a credit score, challenge a perceived overcharge or any number of other problems. More problematic, is the chilling impact of a vendor cautioning a tenacious consumer not to press too hard, if the consumer wants to maintain his or her credit rating or credit score.
6) Residents on a Hawaiian Island recently were repeatedly denied information on the pesticides used by an agribusiness that were wafting over their breathing space. The company claimed the information was a trade secret and didn’t want to release the information because of its potential competitors.
Abuse of the “trade secret” excuse is extensive and is often used by government regulatory safety agencies (such as the Food and Drug Administration) that are often sworn to secrecy when a company complies with a request to divulge information or wants an approval to sell its product. Toxic or likely harmful matter should never remain secret to increase corporate profits or cover up gross recklessness.
The age of information selectivity, however, isn’t limited to the Internet; it permeates all levels of government and corporate operations. We now live in a time of vast government secrecy. Government agencies often flout federal and state freedom of information laws. Even some laws, regulations, executive orders and legal memoranda authorizing dubious government adventures are secret. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, there has been a surge of secret law, secret courts, secret evidence, secret expenditures for violent quagmires abroad, secret prisons, secret snooping, arrests without open charges and even – get this– redacted or partially censored court decisions that are publicly published.
Combine the above with secret campaign contributions through super-PACs and it’s easy to understand former President Jimmy Carter’s statement last year that the U.S. no longer has a functioning democracy.
At the state and local governmental level, the curse of secrecy is rampant. In the District of Columbia, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development has repeatedly refused formal requests, pursuant to the DC Freedom of Information Act, that it produce the contracts regarding the “sale” of public properties (libraries, fire stations, police stations, schools, etc.) to private developers. As public contracts, the law requires them to be posted online, for public inspection, even if there has been no request filed by a citizen.
Then there is the information that corporate executives deny their owners – the shareholders – from having, often by citing the wildly expansive “business judgment” rule. Sure, shareholders, with the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, get reams of information, but not much of the sensitive information about the corporate bosses enriching themselves, making bad decisions or variously stripping the shareholders of their ownership rights.
The examples of critical or game-changing information – well beyond your fingertips –are legion. So let’s not wax ecstatic over the information explosion without paying more attention to the information implosion into the special interest caves of dark secrecy. Snares and delusions beckon more discriminating minds free of the “gee-whiz technotwits” who distract us with the latest information gadgets.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.