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TNR Debate: Too Much Transparency? (Part II)

More scrutiny of government is the solution, not the problem.

Lawrence Lessig’s essay warns that the unintended consequence of the success of what he calls the “naked transparency movement” will be to “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.” His implication is that the movement's proponents are insufficiently interested in appropriate analysis of all political data they are working to liberate, and care not whether the correlations and comparisons they generate “reveal something real.” Worse, he argues, Americans generally lack the attention span and judgment necessary to make appropriate use of this new information flow.

We beg to differ. No one in the transparency movement argues that achieving our goal of online, real-time disclosure of who, what, where, when, and how people are seeking to influence our government, how our elected and governmental representatives are carrying out their public duties, and how our tax dollars are being spent, is a cure all for what our citizenry already perceives as a dysfunctional political process. Instead, we argue that more transparency in politics will enable a healthy dynamic of rising public attention and engagement in demanding more accountability from government. Indeed, many believe that improved transparency will make an even stronger case for the public financing reform that Lessig desires, while others expect that greater openness will raise the disincentives for bad behavior and reward better behavior on the part of public servants.

Oddly, Lessig only sees an increasing downside to improved disclosure, writing: “[T]he Web will show us every possible influence. The most cynical will be the most salient. Limited attention span will assure that the most salient is the most stable." But the logical extension of his argument is that the only way to restore public faith in government is to end even the current limited disclosures about the several billions of dollars now spent annually on lobbyists, contributions, and other efforts to influence members of Congress and federal regulators.

The current transparency movement actually is quite different from the “naked transparency” straw man Lessig creates and attacks in his essay. We do not believe in solely releasing data and then reaping the whirlwind. We and our colleagues spend most of our efforts creating tools and sites to help draw meaning from the information we help put online. For example, we annually directly train more than a thousand reporters and bloggers on how to use these datasets, tools, and sites to better inform their investigations into the work of government. Untold others find and use these resources on their own. Our flagship sites are packed with detailed narrative postings seeking to help connect the dots; the mashups we have fostered aim at making meaning from minutia. The very idea of exposing government data feeds for outside developers is, at its core, about spurring innovation in the way we all perceive and contextualize data.

Moreover, at a time when competitive pressures are clearly undermining the old model of for-profit capital-intensive serious journalism, we see our work as both helping traditional investigative journalists continue to function by making their research less costly, and enabling the new journalistic paradigm, by empowering people who used to be called the audience to join in the process of understanding how legislation and policy are influenced and made. We have much faith in the ability of journalists and citizens to use expanded information with intelligence, and confidence in the consistent development of better research and analytical tools to aid them.

We’re sorry Lessig is now gloomy about a movement that, only recently, he seemed to be so optimistic about. We don’t mind him raising hard questions about where the Internet may inadvertently take us, but we think he is worrying far too much about a parade of horribles that have yet to emerge. The reality of Washington is that far too much of our nation’s business is still hidden from public view; that much of our great commonwealth is wasted by cronyism and venality; and that the public’s regard for the institutions of government is--as a result--sadly already where Lessig says he is afraid it will go. Improved transparency is not a threat to public trust; it is the very basis for restoring that trust.

Ellen Miller and Michael Klein are co-founders of the Sunlight Foundation.

Part I: Why more transparency actually makes politicians less likely to act in the public interest, by Tim Wu

Part II: More scrutiny of government is the solution, not the problem, by Ellen Miller and Michael Klein

Part III: How the courts could strike a balance between the needs for transparency and privacy, by Jeffrey Rosen

Part IV: Greater transparency will build-not diminish-the public's trust, by David Weinberger