Building Common Infrastructure for Meaningful Tech Transparency

Tom Barraclough, Jason Pielemeier / Feb 22, 2024

Tom Barraclough and Jason Pielemeier from the Action Coalition on Meaningful Transparency (ACT) say tech transparency is an emerging ecosystem that requires nurturing, support, and the development of long-lasting infrastructure, including the ACT’s new Transparency Initiatives Portal.

Yasmin Dwiputri & Data Hazards Project / Better Images of AI / Safety Precautions / CC-BY 4.0

Multiple regulatory regimes now require some form of transparency from tech firms. Provisions in legislation such as the European Union’s Digital Services Act and the United Kingdom’s Online Safety Act are examples of a wave of transparency requirements and corresponding disclosures required under similar regulations. What started with voluntary disclosures transitioned to co-regulatory frameworks, and then to State-led and multilateral regulatory structures, adding transnational complexity. Each step along the way instigated disclosures on new topics in response to new kinds of actors in new jurisdictions – from regulators, to trusted flaggers, to vetted researchers and government agencies, to name a few. While the general trend line is towards more transparency, progress is by no means linear – there is still considerable uncertainty as to whether and how all these different transparency regimes will end up serving the interests of users and the public, especially those in the most high risk countries or communities.

In order for these transparency regimes to advance human rights and democracy, an even greater range of actors – including independent auditors, journalists, civil society experts, and lawyers – will need to become familiar with analyzing the data and disclosures from tech firms to understand if public policy goals and legal requirements are being met. In addition, the implementation of these new transparency regimes themselves must be transparent, with involvement from companies, civil society, and government in enacting, monitoring, and eventually potentially reformed based on lessons from initial implementations. The present focus on digital services and social media is mirrored and bolstered by a parallel trend of compelled reporting by companies of all stripes on a broad range of “sustainability” criteria. In the near future, attention will shift to AI companies and other data-dependent technologies, requiring those that develop and apply AI to disclose crucial information about models and their usage.

In short, we are now facing a potential deluge of tech transparency material – data, reports, and other forms of information. This prospect has understandably prompted some observers to question the workability of transparency frameworks; indeed, a common observation from companies with longstanding commitments to voluntary transparency is that there’s little evidence that the people who call for it go on to actually read and use the materials companies produce. Anyone who has casually perused the Digital Services Act Transparency Database, for example, will have noticed that the sheer volume of ‘Statements of Reasons’ from online platforms is approaching absurdity.

A global piece of infrastructure for tech transparency data

How do we avoid drowning in all of this tech transparency information, and instead make meaningful sense of it? How do we find the right needles in the haystack, and identify gaps in what’s being produced and who has access to it? We think the solution lies in developing a sustained and systematic approach to organizing relevant tech company transparency-related processes, research, disclosures, and initiatives. That’s why we’ve built the new Transparency Initiatives Portal (TIP, or “the portal”). A shared piece of community infrastructure, the portal functions as a centralized hub for aggregating information on various actors, initiatives, outputs and events in the realm of transparency. It's designed to help researchers, policymakers, regulators, journalists and other key tech policy stakeholders easily share, navigate, and contextualize tech transparency material, all in a single, easy-to-use, streamlined database.

Other actors have clearly recognized that digital infrastructure is required. Already we’ve seen related trackers from Tech Policy Press (including this and this), Tremau, the European Commission itself (including a partnership with Open Terms Archive), New America, the Future of Free Speech and others. What makes the TIP portal different from these other valuable tools is its broad scope, global focus, and its flexible design, intended to evolve over time – including through eventual translation into non-English languages. While the European Commission and European stakeholders are relatively tooled up and well-established, the portal was made with all jurisdictions in mind, including those with access to fewer resources. It’s also intended to serve audiences beyond the entrenched and experienced researchers who already navigate the broad array of “transparency centers” being produced by companies and governments globally. New entrants to platform and technology governance spaces, community groups, and advocates in the Global Majority deserve a more orderly and comprehensive entry point to national and global discussions. A central, global repository for transparency materials is something we heard people repeatedly say they need, so that’s what the portal aims to provide.

Transparency’s fundamental role in tech accountability

It’s easy to reject transparency as being somehow superficial, or a poor substitute for more top-down accountability regimes. But this overlooks the critical role of transparency in producing that accountability – not only under regulatory regimes, but also in the eyes of the public, advertisers, and other influential groups. Far from being cosmetic or neutral, transparency plays a fundamental role in spreading the load of regulatory enforcement, and for making sure that enforcement is done consistently under the rule of law and human rights principles. The European Commission, the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner, and Ofcom in the UK have all indicated that a core purpose of transparency obligations is to provide a factual foundation for public inquiry and debate, which in turn can and should inform the investment of limited regulatory resources.

While voluntary transparency by technology companies is somewhat novel, transparency of and by regulators through mechanisms like access to information laws has long been a fundamental requirement of good government and a key component of the right to freedom of expression. The DSA, the UK’s Online Safety Act, the Australian Online Safety Act, and proposed Australian legislation on misinformation all emphasize the need for companies to establish systems and processes aligning with broad objectives, including safety expectations and human rights. However, a consistent concern is that these loosely defined performance standards can be subject to corporate capture or political influences. Some commentators – including individuals such as Martin Husovec, and organizations such as DFRLab and the Future of Free Speech – have pointed out that regulators already risk deviating from strict regulatory wording in response to political pressures, especially concerning sensitive topics like disinformation.

As we look ahead to the unprecedented number of global elections in 2024, a human rights-based approach that scrutinizes the influence of state actors on online communications is vital. The rise of populist leaders globally, who often favor interventionist approaches over principled ones to freedom of expression, adds to the importance of safeguarding fundamental human rights. As political leadership changes, there’s a risk of undue influence, even on independent regulators. Transparency – both from regulators themselves, and from companies subject to influence by regulators – therefore becomes a fundamental mechanism for the protection of human rights.

Transparency is not a “set and forget” exercise

In many respects, it feels like governments and regulators have implemented transparency frameworks and then said, “here, catch!” – expecting researchers, journalists, and civil society experts to do the hard and often under-funded work of digesting these outputs. The reliance on codes of practice and secondary regulation has imposed further consultation obligations on already-stretched civil society participants across multiple jurisdictions. For meaningful analysis, global coordination is necessary. After all, it is in under-regulated, Global Majority contexts that the most significant harms on digital services often emerge first, before their digital and analog ramifications echo across platforms and other jurisdictions.

Looking ahead, just as with any regulation we can be certain that transparency frameworks will have unintended consequences. It might be that the scope, scale, or formats as currently designed are too overwhelming. We also have to anticipate that a disclosure, at some point, will be said to have caused serious harm either to a user, a community, or an important integrity system. A broad net that captures an array of transparency materials as they stand now will therefore support systematic analyses of how the systems are working over time, and in what ways they need reform. The TIP portal is a piece of infrastructure designed for this systematic global approach, and will itself evolve over time.

What’s next: building the necessary infrastructure to support meaningful transparency

Now that the Transparency Initiatives Portal has launched, we hope users, activists, researchers and others will actively engage with it by suggesting resources to add, sharing it with their networks, and providing feedback to help us improve it.

Of course, we know that making meaning from tech transparency requirements will require more than just a website. The new transparency regulatory ecosystem that is emerging will require ongoing, active curation, additional resources, and collaboration across global networks. The portal can also be a resource for organizing workshops, sharing experience through training and collaboration, and creating networks to fill any existing gaps.

Importantly, this new global infrastructure will need to be funded. Regulators, governments and companies have some responsibility here. Philanthropic bodies have also played a crucial role in advocating for transparency over the past decade, so their commitments to this area are essential to ensure the welcome deluge of data and disclosures can be analyzed and understood.


Tom Barraclough
Tom Barraclough is the Director of the Brainbox Institute, a tech policy think tank and consultancy established in 2018 with a special interest in law and digital systems. In 2022, Brainbox was appointed the inaugural project lead for the Action Coalition on Meaningful Transparency, and led design a...
Jason Pielemeier
Jason Pielemeier is the Executive Director of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a dynamic multi-stakeholder human rights collaboration, building consensus for the advancement of freedom of expression and privacy amongst technology companies, academics, human rights and press freedom groups and so...