The Limits to Openness

Unless you live in certain countries or read certain newspapers, you will have been deluged over the last few days with “revelations” from those US diplomatic cables that have been released by Wikileaks (if you somehow missed all this...

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Unless you live in certain countries or read certain newspapers, you will have been deluged over the last few days with "revelations" from those US diplomatic cables that have been released by Wikileaks (if you somehow missed all this fun, try this excellent "Wikileaks Cablegate Roundup".)

And here's the best explanation I've seen of why Julian Assange is doing this – and, in the process, potentially putting his life at risk if you believe some of the rhetoric blowing out of the US:

The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks' activities will "carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity," a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of Wikileaks — as Assange argues — is simply to make Wikileaks unnecessary.

(Do read the rest of the post for the details, it's well worth it.)

Leaving aside the question of whether Assange is right in that analysis – to say nothing of the even more important one of whether he will actually realise his vision – there are already some worrying signs that his high-profile kind of enforced transparency is producing some highly-negative reactions in some quarters – and I'm not just talking about the US.

Indeed, many of the most troubling comments have come from French politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. Here are some choice phrases reported by the Guardian's Paris correspondent:

The right-wing Le Figaro, close to the French government, ran an editorial entitled "The tyranny of transparency" saying: "The massive diffusion of secret documents belonging to American diplomacy is an act of malice, about which it would be very naïve to rejoice."

The Socialist party was as critical of the leaks as Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party. The socialist Jean-Christophe Cambadélis complained of "the tyranny of transparency with no limits" . Socialist spokesman Benoît Hamon said he was "not really in favour" of the publication of the cables.

Francois Baroin, budget minister and government spokesman, told Europe1 radio, "I always thought a transparent society would be a totalitarian society."

Now, it's true that our Gallic friends do seem to have a very peculiar attitude to opening up government data. For example, where many are making this available as widely as possible, France may be taking a rather different approach:

A law to be discussed in the French parliament before the end of 2010 will result in the police carrying out "behaviour" checks on members of the public and organisations wanting to reuse information obtained from public bodies. The likely effect is to severely limit access to information and freedom of expression.

The draft law currently before the French National Assembly amends the 1995 Police Security Act and will extend the scope of police "behaviour" checks from legitimate purposes such as checking on those to have access to dangerous substances and high security zones to those who want to reuse information obtained from public bodies. The criteria for the background checks are not specified in the law.

The information affected could include, for example, databases on public spending, copies of laws, or electoral results. Much data held by local authorities which is of great interest to the public such as schedules and real-time locations of trains and buses, information about recycling schemes, and construction works permits would also fall under these new controls.

But leaving that extraordinarily retrogressive move on one side, the French politicians' comments do raise an important issue: how far should we go in opening up government data?

Rather presciently, this was touched upon by Tom Steinberg in a speech that I wrote about last week, in which he said:

if we focus on asking our governments to publish as much as they can, it will spread the finite amount of good will, money and political capital which exists and is available to help us achieve change. I think the change we need most strongly right now is reform to give ... stronger rights to the data that many ... are still clamouring for, but whatever you think is most important change you need to realise that spreading your efforts too thin is likely to see it fail

I agree that asking for too much, too soon, is a risky approach, for the reason Steinberg mentions. But even more dangerous is allowing politicians to brand contentious projects like Wikileaks as the inevitable, extremist end-point of openness – with the implication that all calls for openness are suspect and need to be viewed with extreme scepticism.

We need to distinguish clearly between the reasonable approach adopted by the UK government, say, with its ambitious but relatively controlled release of non-personal data, and the no-holds-barred transparency of campaigning Web sites like Wikileaks, whether you regard the latter as a good or bad thing. If we don't fight that dangerous conflation, then, when the establishment counter-attack on Wikileaks begins in earnest, we may find the cause of open data and open government become yet more collateral damage, if not quite collateral murder.

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