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TNR Debate: Too Much Transparency? (Part IV)

Greater transparency will build-not diminish-the public's trust.

Lawrence Lessig worries that the citizenry will be swayed by invalid conclusions drawn from the data that transparency is making available. The danger is real, but he misidentifies the culprit. Opposition researchers and corrupt public actors found no shortage of ammo in the pre-transparency days. Swift-Boaters, birthers, and “Palin-is-Tripp's-Mom” folks didn't need facts to contribute to the general public stupidity. The problem isn't the over-abundance of data: It's a system that rewards riling up great storms of stupidity. Greater access to more data will be an important part of the fight against systemic stupidity and the predations of the stupidity mongers.

But it turns out that Lessig isn't exactly "against transparency." He's against transparency as the sole requirement for political reform, and he's against the transparent dumping of data without tools for making sense of it. The pro-transparency position he's against is one that I've never heard maintained. It's good to be reminded that data is not enough and that there are risks involved, but the "take-away" of his article seriously undervalues transparency.

A general policy of openness, after all, helps to achieve Lessig's goal of restoring confidence in our government. After all, transparency is not about publishing every fact, but about making transparency a prima facie good: In a transparent regime, agencies need no special justification to make something public, but do to keep something secret. Without this change in defaults, the decisions about what to make public are in the hands of those with the strongest incentive to keep the citizenry in the dark. When the evidence is known to be controlled by highly partisan actors, even the evidence that is released is tainted and untrustworthy. This is especially true for information about the flow of money and influence, precisely the data Lessig worries about releasing.

Transparency builds the citizenry's confidence in another important way. Opacity positions a government as an alien force that gets to decide autonomously exactly what it deigns to let its subjects know. Transparency states that the government is of, for, and by the people. It's our data. Rather than diminishing transparency-as-the-default, Lessig ought to embrace it as an essential component of his important anti-corruption reform project.

David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

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