Prompted by the flurry of activity around here, Henry Farrell of the highly-regarded Crooked Timber blog has organized a seminar on Open Data. In Timber-speak a seminar is a series of posts over the course of a week or so by a variety of guest bloggers, together with comments from the CT crowd, who are a very smart crowd indeed. So I'm thrilled at the seminar, and even more thrilled to be the first contributor; my contribution is Seeing Like a Geek.
Open Data at Crooked Timber
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Interesting. It seems you’ve started your own meme 🙂
I like the Tamil Nadu land registry reform example. I’m not convinced it demonstrates the hazards of open data though. It seems to be a good example of unintended consequences, especially during times of significant change. I’m guessing the unintended consequences of land reform have come up a bunch of times surrounding the reforms promoted by Hernando de Soto.
I think your arguments apply as much to free market advocates as it does to free market skeptics. It all comes down to Value Creation and Value Capture. Both sides hate when value is captured by individuals/groups that were not responsible for its creation. Free Market types hate when government, corrupt officials, and crony capitalists capture unearned value. Your focus is on commercial entities that do the same.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time but I think I’ve finally figured out a way to (mostly) say it:
Let’s say that I’m a privacy advocate, and I broadly like things such as Bit-torrent / Gnutella, Tor routing, and other “Darknetty” things. This isn’t because I have something to hide, but more because I support the idea that there needs to be an eco-system of private information being transferred around without any oversight.
The downside is that some of the people who also use the same technologies are pedophiles. This goes further than just having them use the same technology; due to the nature of the technology I could assume that pedophiles were likely using my very own hardware to mask their data transfers (as, I suppose, I would use theirs). To some extent I am literally making it possible for them to do what they do. What makes this worse is that since this is quite a distinct sub-culture, analogies like “we don’t make cars illegal because you can rob banks using them” don’t really wash — cars are pervasive, but a little privacy subculture could “go away” and not destroy society in any meaningful way. To top things off, a lot of people who need privacy the most (say, whistleblowers) are simply not using the technology that I’m using. They prefer to use methods that are far more dangerous for them for some reason or another (usability, lack of technical understanding, hoping that no one is listening in). But pedophiles are using it.
So my biggest enemy now is not even the government or corporations or anyone who might be listening in to my data, it’s pedophiles, who have the ability to completely uproot my “movement”, or “ecosystem of software” or however you might want to interpret that. They may do much more, which is paint privacy advocates (whether they use the technology or not) with a broad brush, clumping them with the pedophiles. I don’t care what’s going on, I don’t want to be on a relatively small side including pedophiles.
This is a lot like Open Data, where it “feels like” it should be doing something, but that’s not how it’s working out. You’re pointing it out, which is hard to swallow but is probably true. But is it right that Open Data is a waste of time?
Here’s where I lose steam. Ultimately it’s silly to have a theory of the way things should be when the only people who agree with you are criminals or the chronically rich or anyone else you consider “bad”. But then what’s the right answer? There are people on the other side equally willing to take advantage.