May 09, 2013

Obama and Others: When "Transparency" Becomes a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

When you're basically a techie who thinks a lot about policy -- as I am -- there's a natural tendency to approach issues specifically and individually, like bugs to be stamped out of complex program code.

Frankly, it's also easier to write that way, to focus on individual issues rather than broader, often conflicting concepts -- that can be far more difficult to paint into an intelligible portrait of words.

But the old platitudes and idioms like "not seeing the forest for the trees" or "connecting the dots" exist for a reason. Sometimes you do need to take the "long view" -- both in space and time -- to really understand what's going on, and how we're likely to be impacted.

I was reminded of this today, as I noted all the excitement around the Net over the Obama administration's announcement of a "government open data" initiative, to help make previously unavailable or hard to access data broadly available to the public to "Enhance Government Efficiency and Fuel Economic Growth" -- as the White House press release puts it.

This is certainly a welcome development in government transparency, well deserving of praise. The excitement is understandable.

And yet ...

Over the last few days there have been other reminders relating to this administration -- paralleling distressing events in Europe and elsewhere -- that remind us how "transparency" can be a nightmarish technological trap as well, depending upon how "transparency" is defined, and who is defining it.

For it's the same Obama administration pushing for "open government data" that is also pushing for a vast expansion of FBI access to our telecommunications and other personal data.

The reported scope of this thrust is both deep and wide. Demands that Internet services provide "real-time" wiretapping facilities -- ironic for an administration pushing cybersecurity, given that such mechanisms actually weaken security by providing new avenues for black hat hacking.

And this is the same administration that is actively fighting to maintain the intolerable legal structure under which warrantless access to our centrally stored email and other data has become such a travesty, threatening consumer confidence in the very cloud-based services that are a crucial aspect of our modern Internet environment.

It appears that President Obama doesn't only ostensibly want government to be transparent to us, but also that everything we write or say on the phone or Internet should be "transparent" to government as well.

That's a rather Faustian sort of bargain that I suspect most of us didn't know we were signing up for, so to speak.

To be sure, this isn't a mindset restricted to Obama, or one political party, or even the USA.

Over in Europe (and elsewhere) a similar "wolf in sheep's clothing" hypocrisy has also taken hold in governments, in dimensions ranging from censorship to surveillance.

In the EU, demands for massive law enforcement inspired, government-mandated consumer data retention regimes have become common, at the same time that dangerous, Orwellian concepts like "the right to be forgotten" and micromanaged censorship of search results are frequently promoted by regulators and other officials.

Meanwhile, we see a fetishistic focus on harmless Web cookies and anonymous ad personalization systems that have hurt nobody, while government demands for politically expedient censorship (doomed to ultimate failure, but still intensely harassing and treacherous) continue to intensify.

Some of these specific hypocrisies are also beginning to show up here in the U.S. as well.

It is almost a given that governments -- going back to the dawn of human civilization -- will rarely be able to resist the urge to try entice us with shiny baubles with one hand, while eviscerating our liberties with the other.

You don't even need to invoke concepts like "evil" to understand this. More often than not, these leaders genuinely feel that they're doing this for our own good, to protect all the "little people" who just don't understand what we really need.

Given that this is pretty much the historical status quo, you may feel comfortable with this state of affairs, or at least resigned to it.

That would be an unfortunate attitude in the extreme, for all of us.

Because the Internet, with its inherent ability to allow us to communicate directly and instantly between individuals, countries, and cultures in a manner never before imagined, does provide us with enormously powerful tools and capabilities unavailable to citizenries of the past.

This is why, not at all coincidentally, that so many governments around the globe are trying so very hard to control the Net, to shape it to their own image -- a task fortunately made very difficult by the Internet's fundamental design philosophy.

But that technological genius will be of comparatively little use to us if we don't avail ourselves of it, and especially if we don't "connect the dots" and "see the forest for the trees" in terms of the issues where the Internet's communications power can be brought productively to bear, especially when governmental hypocrisies are involved.

Governments will keep trying to entice us with their baubles, but the Internet is the very foundation of our rights and freedoms for the future -- most especially for the "little people" like us.


Posted by Lauren at May 9, 2013 10:41 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein