No real debate on the need for transparency

April 14, 2008 at 11:52 pm Leave a comment

There is an interesting pair of articles in Wired that looks at government and transparency and ends up as a non-debate.

The first round was fired by Bruce Schneier in The Myth of the ‘Transparent Society’. He takes on books like David Brin’s “The Transparent Society” that argue, “In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you’ll know all about me, but I will also know all about you. The government will be watching us, but we’ll also be watching the government.”

Bruce believes that this doesn’t work “because it ignores the crucial dissimilarity of power” between government and people. He gives the example of a police officer stopping a person and demanding ID. Divulging the person’s identity gives the police officer great power over the person while divulging the officer’s ID doesn’t give the same level of power to the person over the officer.

He then goes on to call for greater openness in government to reduce the difference in relative power between “the governors and the governed.”

In general, I agree with Bruce even though the specific example of the police officer demanding ID doesn’t quite work for me. If I’m lawfully required to show ID to a police officer, I’d expect that the laws would be followed, i.e. the checks and balances in the system- provided they work- are in place to reduce the power differential. However, I do agree that given the greater ability of government to act in a negative manner, it has a higher moral duty to be more open, to reduce the power differential, and make to sure the checks and balances work effectively.

In a counterpoint to Bruce’s article, David Brin wrote an article called David Brin Rebuts Schneier In Defense of a Transparent Society. I think he goes off on a bit of a tangent, challenging Bruce on a relatively minor point about whether or not an open society is a new concept or not.

David Brin goes on to say a lot of things without actually conveying anything. At the end of it all, to me, both seem to agree that transparency is critical- replace David’s “elites” with Bruce’s “people with power” and I think they are actually saying the same thing.

The topic of transparency in government is echoed by, somewhat surprisingly, Bill Gates. At a recent conference on Latin American government he said, “I think it’s been phenomenal. I think the quality of governance has improved, and can improve a lot more, because of that Internet transparency.” He went on to give the example of the Scandinavian countries making all government information available online.

This lines up well with Bruce Schneier’s and David Brin’s call for greater transparency in government.

So, at the end of all that, it’s a bit of a non-debate but a sound conclusion nevertheless: openness and transparency by government in dealing with people is vital and an essential prerequisite for privacy.


Entry filed under: government, personal_info, privacy.

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