Zach Beauvais

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

by | Jul 25, 2009 | Perspective

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...

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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  1. JEldenBailey

    Unfortunately, the current POTUS used social medias like Twitter to convince the young voter that he was “hip” and understood their world. Statements such as “Twitter has been blocked on most of the White House computers” to assure that people are not wasting time only show that a smokescreen was presented simply to gain votes. It also demonstrates that this Presidency is not interested in transparency or an open flow of information.

    It is also unfortunate that both major parties of the US gov’t continue to whittle away at the very liberties that created this country. In the name of security, we have seen our freedoms removed. In my opinion this current administration will further a belief in the voters that it is the responsibility of the gov’t to “take care of us.” Thus, they will create a dependency on the gov’t that will further erode the liberties upon which this country was founded. It is for this reason that I abhore big government- one which goes beyond the bounderies set in the Constitution and creates such dependencies.

    Before however you reach the conclusion that all of the US gov’t is inclined to suppress the movement of information through social medias such as Twitter, I encourage you to look at two federal and two local sources that show otherwise. The first is Senator John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) who recently passed a million followers on Twitter. The second national source is Tweet Congress (@tweetcongress) which actively encourages Congress and the Senate to use Twitter as a means of communication. When a Representative starts using Twitter, they send out a notification.

    On a local level, the State of Colorado (your former place of residence) has an active stream of tweets coming from @statebill and @coloradogov that make public upcoming votes, legislation and even the Gov’s appearances.

  2. Alex

    Interesting article, not sure I believe that making all data public is necessarily a good thing. The theory seems watertight.. and the expenses scandal being brought to light shows how information sharing can be a good thing, but I actually like the way it is left to the press to unveil things like that, leaving journalists to take risks to uncover stories and face the consequences of being wrong, while allowing the government to be able to fulfill obligations that are toward the public good.

    I do not feel completely comfortable with the idea that I am able to know everything about the way in which my country works, not because I don’t trust myself, but because I realise that there are others who I wouldn’t trust with certain information. I see it as my democratic right to vote for people who I will trust to run the country, and if they mess up, then the press can come in and eat them alive.

    During my time in Chicago, reading press reports, using GIS (which involved accessing US Government data online), tapping into US society and particularly by judging the reactions of American students in my ‘fabulous’ e-government classes, it certainly seemed that the American people are already hell-bent on transparency, believing in it as a fundamental human right, in a way in which we have not in the UK – perhaps contrary to the picture you have painted – although we seem to be fast moving in that direction. You write that the Office of Public Sector Information blogs about plans to make data available for public use, but that has happened in the US already, albeit with certain limitations set for national security reasons, and the FOIA procedures do not always work as intended.

    I think it is slightly overgeneralising to draw conclusions from the white house’s ban on twitter to the wider political climate, but I would agree that it is over the top to have a white house twitter ban. That said, I do not think that twitter makes any government more transparent (if anything it could do the opposite and act as a propaganda tool – I used to follow no. 10 too!) I would argue that it isn’t more approachable either. Perhaps, though, it offers the illusion of approachability.

    I think the US is further on with transparency than the UK, and I do not believe that it is a good thing. Once information is public, it can not be re-hidden, and sometimes it should be hidden, because not everyone uses information with the best of intentions. The British press, in my opinion, acts as an effective and extremely important control against things that are undesirable in our political system (ie the expenses row) but I do not think that us going down the road of demanding to know where every penny of our tax is spent is either helpful, worthwhile or healthy for politics. At a time when people are feeling untrusted by the government, it seems as though a quest for transparency is turning the problem on its head and asking whether the people trust the government…

    If we are asking this, perhaps we’ve missed the point of the British press. The policing of British politics by British press gives the government a chance to get on with it behind a certain – and I would argue appropriate – level of secrecy, but to be held accountable at the end of the day. And to be honest, I think it is naive to believe that we would ever achieve true accountability anyway.

    With regards to Mr Bailey’s response, I do not think that the government ‘taking care’ of us directly relates to invasion of personal liberty. Unfortunately it seems as though the two have happened at the same time in the US to achieve that perception, but the UK has been heavily nannied for a long time (with the welfare state) in contrast to the post 9/11 erosion of civil liberties that both countries have experienced. I don’t always agree with such a high level of looking after but I do separate that idea from the idea of supervision and the reducing of our civil liberties. I think that it is interesting to see how the US responds to erosion of civil liberties considering that there is a belief that government should be kept small. Here, I think the looking after makes people apathetic and individualistic in their thinking, but the reduction of civil liberties makes people resent the government and authority figures.

    Well, you guys have made me think… back to painting walls now!

  3. Zach Beauvais

    Hi guys, thanks for the comments.

    I agree twitter can be used as a propaganda tool—it’s part of what won Obama his presidency, and No. 10 has nothing but bland, pro-labour updates. I don’t think Obama used it to convince folk he was hip, I think his campaign manager grasped its significance very well. Unfortunately, the engagement it was supposed to have demonstrated has petered out since the election. I see this as less of a US/UK or Obama/McCain difference. It’s a reflection of the short-term nature of Western politics. McCain lost the election, so he’s still got a reputation to maintain with twitter and social channels. Obama won, and he doesn’t need it any more (which is short-sighted!).

    It’s about the attitude, though. A blanket ban announced by a flippant press secretary smacks of cover-up. If they had said: “there is a potential security threat”, I’d understand. BUT, I want to know what that threat is, what it could lead to, and how twitter is part of it. It’s too easy to call something a “security threat” and ban it without public accountability. What if they’d said all public interaction outside a state-appointed press officer is a potential security threat? As Jim pointed out, I’ll have to have a look at Colorado’s feed. With many things in the US, you have to look at a State equivalent of central government here, and it may be that some states themselves are making better use of engaging technologies.

    WRT public data, the US has been SEEN to make available lots of its data, but there is a much different style in the process. The president days he wants to expose more data to seed innovation and do more catch-phrased good, so a spanking new site is launched, with much fanfare and press coverage (, btw). However, the site has little data available. It’s a show. It might be that there is already much data available in the States (most of it isn’t open enough to be cross-platform interoperable, though), but it’s the idea that it’s a marketing trick to even publish the (already supposedly public) data, that has me jumpy.

    The current plan for the UK is leaning towards Linked Data, which would be instantly usable. They’ve appointed some of the best in the business, as it were, to make it happen; and this seems to me to be a logical way of accomplishing a task. It makes more sense to recruit and appoint a specialist than to recruit and pay for a designer and marketing team.

    As for transparency, however, I think I’m generally a pro-transparency at most costs person. I think it’s up to us to make decisions about how we live, and we should have the best data or information available. Not all of us will make use of this data directly, necessarily, but someone will. So, for example, the UK taxpayer has essentially bought all the data which makes up Ordinance Survey maps. It’s publicly-funded data, but we have to buy it off the government whenever we use it. To me, that’s a double-tax, and excessive charge for costs we’ve already paid. There are many things which are of public record, but they’re published in a way which is often intentionally opaque, so they’re as good as siloed. What I want is to know what people think about a very different system: one in which we can ALL see EVERYTHING. I don’t know if it’s feasible, or even desirable, but I don’t necessarily trust the press—or Rupert Murdoch!—much more than an elected official.

    And, I’d rather know that I could find out what an MP spent his/her allowance on than not. After all, I might decide to look up my local MP’s record before letting them have a second term. If they can’t be trusted with £5 on a lunch they shouldn’t have bought, why should I trust them with £5m for a school their mate might want to build? Transparency is a two-way thing: look at MP’s who HAVEN’T fiddled their expenses. I’d like to know who to trust as much as who not to, if that makes sense?

    I don’t know what’s available in the US as far as expenses goes. Can you easily get a list of what your congressman spends? Can you easily compare it to the cost of travel to find out if it’s inflated or padded? If we’re paying for a congressman to fly, we should get a good deal too!

    I think you (Alex) are right to point to the difference between nanny-state and security-eroded liberties. The UK has many state functions I’d rather it didn’t, and I think the US is best to avoid. It employes more people than I think it should directly, it has restrictive policies and a tendency toward knee-jerk legislation. But on the surface, it certainly feels less jumpy than the States. It’s a post-9/11 world… Why do I have to keep hearing that? I think the argument is wearing thin. I don’t think we should be less vigilant, or less concerned with our safety, but we should be able to establish our own perspective.

    I think it’s actually a cause for justifying more openness, actually. If we had more published, we might be able to make our own decisions about whether a law or measure was appropriate or not. We might decide, en masse, that we wanted to be physically safer, live more sheltered lives, and restrict our own liberties further: but at least we’d have the choice, based on information we’re already paying and working for anyway.

  4. Alex

    Frankly I think we are going in a really dangerous direction if we push for transparency. If for whatever reason, governments have information which should not be shared (and I believe that there must be plenty of such information) then despite whatever obligations, they will have ways of hiding the truth/facts. Pushing for transparency, I believe, would create a society that believes that it has the full picture when it doesn’t. I would prefer to know that I do not know everything than be under the illusion that I do. Perhaps I have been watching too much spooks – where the focus is very much on domestic security – and perhaps we’re talking cross purposes (I agree that the ‘feeding trough’ of MP’s expenses is unacceptable, mind you I think the Euro gravy train is worse!) but I would maintain that transparency sounds like a nice ideal to an individualistic culture and is a nice ideal ONLY in a perfect world. I would go as far as to cynically say that any politician including promises of transparency in their manifesto is very in touch with western culture, hungry for votes, and I would imagine we wouldn’t notice any difference.

    I do understand better where you are coming from re: banning twitter from the white house. After all, it would be rather obvious who said what I should imagine!

    Does the UK really employ significantly more people directly? I was very surprised to find that some of my classmates in Chicago were technically federal employees because they worked for the university. I know that universities in the UK are not connected to government in this way. That said, universities are not ‘nannying’ institutions.

  5. Zach Beauvais

    Hmmm, I think it is actually transparent to say what you can and can’t say. It’s not “transparent” if you can hide, but to say: “We can’t reveal this info for security reasons” is at least saying what is behind closed doors, and gives us an idea. If there is too much going behind these doors, we can at least have an inkling that it might be a bit of a convenient excuse…

    The UK does employ significantly more than the US, but I’m afraid I’ve lost the link to the presentation that contained the numbers. I’ll have to dig it out.

  6. Zach

    Hmmm, I think it is actually transparent to say what you can and can’t say. It’s not “transparent” if you can hide, but to say: “We can’t reveal this info for security reasons” is at least saying what is behind closed doors, and gives us an idea. If there is too much going behind these doors, we can at least have an inkling that it might be a bit of a convenient excuse…

    The UK does employ significantly more than the US, but I’m afraid I’ve lost the link to the presentation that contained the numbers. I’ll have to dig it out.


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