open government

Bring on the Participatory Sensing

For decades, Congress has delegated the fate of our public lands, the air, water and wildlife to federal agencies, where a familiar dynamic of regulatory capture and corruption quickly takes root.  It’s depressingly routine:  industry foxes are appointed to guard the chicken house, they make politically motivated judgments about scientific data, they engage in legalistic subterfuges and throw blankets of secrecy over the data and decisionmaking.  A complicit Congress cuts budgets in order to cripple regulatory effectiveness. 

So here’s an interesting idea for changing the political ecosystem of regulation:  Use Web 2.0 platforms to let citizens participate directly, and let the data be seen by everyone, in near-real time, on the Web.  Reinvent regulation as an open source project, as it were, so that everyone can participate and industry money and interventions cannot so easily corrupt the process.  

The Empire Strikes Back

John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is:  “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.  There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”

It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear:  1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.

While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government?  The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. 

Wikileaks, the War and Accountability

Wikileaks' release of 76,000 government documents about the Afghanistan war is already provoking a firestorm of debate -- Will it help or hurt the war effort in Afghanistan? What will be the diplomatic and political fallout?

All of these issues are worthy of debate, of course, but the more enduring issue is what the documents reveal about democratic accountability in the United States, or the lack thereof. Once again, the American people are the last ones to know the truth -- while presidents, the military, Congress and the press each plays its own role in sanitizing or suppressing the truth to advance its interests.

It takes a whistleblower to save democracy — or at least remind us what a functioning democracy might look like.

A New Global Landmark for Free Speech

Could we be reaching a turning point in history where the monopoly on societal communication enjoyed by governments and corporations is finally broken? Will the commoners be able to share information freely without risking jail, civil penalties or authoritarian retribution?

The pioneering website on these questions is surely Wiklileaks, which in only three years has become the leading venue for whistleblowers from around the world. Founder Julian Assange — who has been likened to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — has posted hundreds of otherwise-secret documents that are highly embarrassing to governments, corporations and powerful individuals. Most recently, Wikileaks released a classified U.S. military video video of American gunships killing 12 Iraqi civilians, complete with brutish audio by the pilots.

Sometimes it just takes a determined set of commoners to get the job done. Impatient with the lethargy of the federal government in making its own films and videos available online, info-activist Carl Malamud has launched the International Amateur Scanning League. Dozens of volunteers are digitizing government-produced DVDs on everything from agricultural advice to presidential addresses, and putting them on the Internet.

Some 200,000 such DVDs are nominally available to the American people, but unless you live in Washington, D.C., and can personally visit the National Archives, your only option is to buy a copy from The Scanning League aims to liberate those videos for everyone — for free.

As the New York Times (March 15) tells the story:

Government 2.0

What if government were treated as an open platform available to everyone — much like the Web — rather than as a closed, semi-proprietary platform that serves those private interests with the money or insider access? That was the premise behind a major conference in Washington, D.C., on September 9-10 hosted by open-source champion and book publisher Tim O’Reilly and Richard O’Neill of the Highlands Group. The event, Government 2.0 Summit, brought together a remarkable array of tech leaders, government officials, citizen advocates, entrepreneurs and others.

The chief focus was on how digital technologies could make government more transparent and accountable, a theme that President Obama embraced in his Inaugural Address. How can the innovations of Web 2.0 such as "crowd-sourcing" and wiki-style collaboration be used to make government projects smarter and more effective?

In earlier guerilla raids on inaccessible government information, public-interest crusader Carl Malamud has "scraped" public-domain documents from poorly designed and fee-based government websites and re-published them on his own servers. It’s proven to be a highly effective tactic. It embarrasses the government agencies by exposing how non-transparent and citizen-unfriendly they really are. It provokes a fresh public discussion about lack of access to government information. And it actually liberates the information (or portions of it) for free public use.

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