Zach Beauvais

Information as a Civil Liberty

Written by Zach Beauvais

Jan 8, 2011

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog:

“Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account.”

I attended a speech at the Institute for Government by UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at which he outlined the government’s stance on civil liberties. This topic is one I am particularly passionate about as a citizen of two democracies, and as a lover of history and human communication, but what was there to interest a software evangelist?

Mr Clegg’s speech is available as a transcript from his party’s site, so you can have a look at the same words I heard. If you read through a lot of the political positioning (references to “Labour”, for non-UK readers, refer to the majority party of the previous government), you get to the bit that interests me as a Talisian as well as a human.

The final point talks about citizens having the right to public information, and the right to speak out about what government (and, notably, publicly-subsidised industry) is doing. The freedom of information and freedom of speech are under the same heading. As Clegg put it:

“It is a modern right to information combined with traditional freedom of expression.”

Examples are given of current transparency measures, including the publishing of particular datasets that are already being used in innovative ways and to hold the government accountable. It’s clear from the speech that transparency is a priority, and that publishing data is seen as fundamental to this.

The theme of balancing security and freedom is repeated throughout the talk, alluding to the fact that some information in any government is clearly going to be kept secret. But the emphasis is on publishing wherever possible, and it was interesting that this felt like the most specific theme of an otherwise very high-level speech. This is an area of public policy that has been changing through the launch of and the continued efforts of two successive governments (and, interestingly, all three major UK parties) to put public data online. The idea that these datasets will be used, reused, mashed up and seed innovation is at the forefront of these talks. This isn’t just data that can be seen, it’s data that can be used.

So, this government seems committed to continuing the trend for transparency through public information, and for their data to be made available online and in useful ways. The emphasis in this speech, however, adds a new dimension to the commitment, at least the way I understand it. It’s not just that data is a right of any free citizen—the Prime Minister said as much before he was PM—but that this right goes hand-in-hand with the citizen’s right to free speech.

Government publishing its data online, free to reuse and feed applications that make it easier to interact with the information has been a huge step. Alongside this is the area of libel reform, which is a topic too big to get into here but involves the scrutiny of scientific and journalistic investigation without the fear of prosecution. (Guardian journalist Simon Singh discusses libel reform here.)

Although Mr Clegg’s talk is mostly general, discussing big ideas and leaving out specifics, I think the principles discussed were hugely important, and it is good to see a further commitment to public data. As a Talisian, it’s great because we work a lot with this kind of data, and it means we get to do more interesting things with it. As a citizen, it’s important that we can see more of what’s going on within government and that it is being considered fundamental enough to mention alongside freedom of speech and libel reform encourages me.

What I’d like to see this year is the specifics, now. What specific things will make publishing public data easier and more thorough?

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