Centre for Internet & Society

This blog post by Tim Davies, Open Data Research Lead at Web Foundation was published in Open Up? on November 3, 2014.

Click to read the original post here. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

Information is powerful. And in a world where the amount of information generated, captured and stored has grown exponentially in recent decades, getting hold of the information you need, when you need it, relies upon having access to the data that describes it. That makes the control of data especially powerful.

Modern transparency initiatives, promoting the idea of open data, have been seeking to break the data-monopoly of privileged actors within the state — unlocking key datasets and making them available for public scrutiny and reducing the information inequalities that undermine open public discourse. Opening up government data is *one* way in which citizens can reclaim some power and reestablish the principle that “they work for us”. Open government data gives us power to know how the government is spending money, what companies are getting public sector contracts and licenses, who owns these companies, what profits they make and what royalties and taxes they pay. Yet, progress has been slow, and we have faced substantial challenges in securing reliable and standardised flows of public data that can be joined-up to give a true picture of how public resources are being used, and key decisions made. Although millions of public datasets have been placed online, the most politically salient are often lacking. The 2013 Open Data Barometer found fewer than 1 in 10 accountability datasets were truly open.

At the same time, advocates of building a more open government need to grapple with three other trends that are shaping discussions of data, power and the state:

  • Firstly, and most important, the revelations brought to our attention by whistleblower Edward Snowden have confirmed the extent of the secret state and the profound imbalance of power between citizens and their state created through mass surveillance. Whilst projects to disclose even basic data on the state like public spending are underfunded and ad hoc, billions of dollars are poured into tools and technologies that violate basic human rights and that threaten trust and security on the Web. Fundamentally the problem with secret mass surveillance is that it destroys the checks and balances that are meant to limit the power of the state over citizens.
  • Secondly, and in part due to the discussion spared by Snowden, public awareness of the data, and consequently power, held by corporations has grown. The Web has become increasingly centralised, and large companies now harvest large amounts of data on any individual technology user. In parallel, in some countries such as the UK, governments have sought to use open data agendas as cover for increased proprietary sharing of public data with private firms, seeking to go around established principles of consent to share publicly held health, tax or student records with profit-making firms. Such data-sharing is not inherently wrong if there are public benefits, but building citizen trust in the state’s stewardship of personal data, and ensuring safeguards are in place to warrant that trust, is a major challenge.
  • Thirdly, concerns have been raised that some of the data released through open data initiatives may also affect the privacy of citizens. Some aggregated and anonymised datasets can be combined with other data to reverse engineer identifiable information. Although early calls for “raw data now” were clear that they were not calling for open personal information, in practice the divide between personal and public can be a narrow one.

So, do these trends mean we should be more cautious about opening up? Should the balance swing back towards a focus on protecting privacy? Ultimately, a simple opposition of privacy and openness is a false dichotomy. The question is not should we focus on openness, or should we protect privacy: but is Who should be open? And how? And whose privacy should be protected, and how?

Sunil Abraham, of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, has offered a key solution in the idea that:

“Transparency should be proportional to power, privacy inversely so.”

It is on this basis that organisations working for a fairer future, with more vibrant public discourse, greater freedom, and better governments, can campaign for both privacy and openness together. Those who occupy public office, own companies, or tender for public contracts must accept that there is a legitimate public interest in information about their activities in these roles, whilst independent citizens must be afforded space to form views and live lives without constant state surveillance. Companies should not be considered to have a right to privacy: their interests are already protected by other laws and provisions.

To deliver effective openness through open data, the Web Foundation is working to understand how data gets used on the ground in different settings across the world, and, with Omidyar support, is working on the creation of inclusive open data standards for public contracting data. Standards like the Open Contracting Data Standard are part of building a new infrastructure of open governance, making it possible to join-up data from different places, helping tilt the balance of power towards citizens when it comes to scrutinising governments and corporations. Through the Open Data Barometer we keep track of the availability of key datasets that can be used for accountability, and we’re co-chairing the Open Government Partnership Open Data Working Group, seeking to set high standards for relevant and usable data disclosures by governments.

By focussing on the civic use of data, we can better identify those datasets that must be in the public domain. And by thinking about relative power when considering privacy we can address genuine privacy concerns, whilst not allowing corporations claiming privacy rights, or public figures trying to hide their financial interests, from diminishing the power of data to enable accountability.

At the same time, the Web Foundation leads the Web We Want campaign, challenging mass surveillance and seeking to secure a Web where individuals have the right to privacy, and the tools to secure it. And increasingly transparency of what the state and companies do with personal data can help increase the capacity of citizens to respond to threats to their autonomy, and can increase oversight and safeguards on state or corporate capacity.

Ultimately, our ongoing efforts to open up, and to protect individual freedoms, have to be strategic. And keeping an analysis of power, and Sunil’s maxim, in mind, provides a good starting point to guide the strategy.