Zach Beauvais

Democracy and the Web: the UK gets it while America tries to control it.

Written by Zach Beauvais

Jul 25, 2009

I read yesterday that twitter has been banned from the White House. In the post, Marshall Kirkpatrick joked that this could be a reason we haven’t seen much from Obama’s twitter stream recently. I must admit however, my initial reaction was sympathetic with the White House for pragmatic reasons, though the attitude of the Press Secretary’s attitude towards “twitterers” did raise the hackles. It makes sense to be secure in the White House, to make sure people aren’t saying things which could be dangerous or cause scandal through carelessness. “Loose lips sink ships”, don’t they?

But I think there is a wider idea here, which I think I’ve glimpsed between the lines.

about 8 hours ago from Tweetie...

twitter is used around the world to announce what we eat for breakfast. I use it to pass on little observations, like you might to a room full of mates, when there isn’t anyone there to share with directly. News of Michael Jackson’s death reached me via an off-colour joke on twitter. These are uses for a technology which it would be difficult to commend.

However, I also use twitter to share news. When my grandfather recently passed away, I received dozens of messages of encouragement and sympathy. Several of us here in Shropshire organise a monthly get together to network and discuss tech-trends and the work we do through the @shropgeek. Important announcements at work, and shared interest groups often rely on twitter for their spread and response, and I’ve had customer service reps from big companies personally respond to my feedback. Of far more significance, the government of Iran was unable to stop twitter, allowing its citizens to tell the rest of the world what was going on when all other forms of communication were censored, blocked, or monitored. And citizens from around the rest of the world responded.

twitter is a medium, and suggesting someone is petty and fatuous because they use it is like suggesting everyone on TV is unimportant or vain. There is no connection between the inane talk-show host and the investigative journalist or head of state! The point is in the message, not the vehicle. But, the point this raises in my mind is that twitter, and other forms of web-enabled channels make for a high level of transparency, and I don’t think the US (in particular) is a power who likes transparency at the moment.

This has lead me to question what I think of the use of web-media by politicians and important figures, particularly in the US and UK. It makes me wonder whether the “Loose lips” philosophy is misguided in the modern world. You see, closing channels, blocking communication, and monitoring messages suggests a democracy that doesn’t trust its citizens with the truth. Sure, there are controls and securities which must be in place, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that every clerk should have a constitutional right to twitter state-secrets…

…or am I?

You see, the United States is global super-power on par with, and probably only directly comparable with great states of the past called Empires. The notion of an emperor of the US would chill the blood of most of my family, and thinking of the US as anything but a “democracy” is practically heresy. After all, citizens’ rights are ensconced in the very foundation myth and history of the US itself. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” begins a letter to a despotic monarch, sparking off the touch-pad for liberating men from the rule of figureheads, class and social bondage. But part of this very myth* that the Republic, “of the people, by the people and for the people” should be based on citizenship trusted to look after themselves and even take up arms to defend their status as such citizens. There is a deep-running notion in the American psyche that if the government were ever to get too big for it’s boots, it is the right—nay, duty—of her citizens to act to reduce her power.

But I don’t believe the US is a state that can be corrected by its citizens very effectively at all. I think of the complexity, size, presence and byzantine nature of the US Government, and I feel disconnected, small, and powerless to change anything. Over the past decade, in the name of security, Americans put up with reductions in liberty, and I think this principle is bleeding through the cracks in the facade of governance. Blocking channels is saying: “we don’t trust you”.

What would a country look like where the public had access to the vast majority of government information? Where government officially made use of the media its citizens used? Where government officials were held accountable via the various media whenever they were caught being mis-represented?

Oddly, I think it’s the UK.

The “traditional” media here are a powerful force. It is seen as a near human right to have intimate news of public officials and dealings, and watching politicians being interviewed by members of the press is like eaves-dropping on a job interview or witnessing a cautious father’s first meeting of a prospective suitor for his only daughter. The press is a force to be reckoned with here, and it’s not seen as the trustworthy force itself, but is is composed of citizens, not officials.

Does this scandalise the government? Yes… and no. There is a very different attitude toward elected officials here, which doesn’t translate easily to American. A Member of Parliament is legally referred to as “Honourable Member”, but the “honourable” is not taken as read by the average Brit. For decades, for example, Members of Parliament have enjoyed a system of expenses whereby they can claim for nearly every cost of living: from second homes to food and utilities. The true level of this feeding-trough has recently been blown wide by the press (who subsequently have been enjoying their own self-congratulatory feast, but that is another post.)

But, I think the UK get the web, probably because it’s used to dealing with powerful media. I follow Number 10 Downing Street (the metonymic residence of the Prime Minister) on twitter. No 10 doesn’t say much, and I don’t think it’s going to expose any state secrets, but I like the fact that it’s there to be engaged. The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) hosts an important blog which outlines the government’s plans to expose public data for normal, every-day citizens to have a play with and to see what’s going on.

And, in the last few weeks, the Prime Minister himself has turned himself around almost 180º in my personal opinion. He represents a party for whom I have less time than either of the other major contenders, and I’ve rather lazily accepted him as an incompetent oaf. But, he’s finally earned my pint and invite to dinner, if not my vote (if any of his secretaries are reading this, just tweet your acceptance, and I’ll find some pheasants and Pinotage). A few weeks ago, he appointed Sir Tim Berners-Lee to a Parliamentary advisory role with the explicit intention of opening up and pushing public data online. This is a major point, because it leads to transparency through public accountability. There seems to be a movement for Parliament to see public data as belonging to the people who bought it with their taxes, and this seems to be the most democratic way to see it. His recent TED talk also made me think he’s got a lot more to say than he perhaps has to date; though I think many of his points raise more questions than they answer.

Much has been said in the online world about the new American administration’s use of social media and the web to mobilise supporters during the election. But there hasn’t been much since. President Obama launched, but there is very little data there. I think the web is seen as a tool for messages, as a part of a bigger campaign, and as a security breach. It’s something to be used with your own agenda, and only under one’s own strict parameters. And, perhaps most non-democratically, it’s been used to broadcast and to cajole—It has not been used to engage. The fact that social media have barely been touched since the election could point to a wider attitude that citizens only matter for the brief time they’re required to vote.

The UK has already exposed much of its public data, and it’s planning to publish more and more as Linked Data (machine-readable, immediately useful resources), and it’s made plans to be more open, grasping the web and the transparency it’s brought through the hard lessons that spin is impossible with a well-informed citizenry, and on the Open Web, there is less room for your own message than there is for humanity.

*mythos is greek for “story”, and it is from that perspective I use the word myth: that it conveys the notion of a commonly-held understanding, not that it is entirely fantastic or without truth.

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