Challenging the ‘Open by Default’ Principle at Open Up? 2014

November 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Personal Data & Privacy Working Group was invited (along with 17 others) to present our work in a demonstration booth at the well-attended Open Up? 2014 event at the Dutch Center last week (November 12) in London. It was a great opportunity for my colleagues and I to interact with folks and  introduce the WG to new contacts, specifically highlighting some of the activities we have undertaken over the course of the past few months, and give them some takeaways in the form of the Open Data and Privacy primer, etc.

However, it was also obvious that for most of the 170+ attendees, the main event with its impressive and diverse line-up of speakers was a huge attraction.  Open Up?  2014, the second in a series organised by Omidyar Network (since it partnered with DFID to host it two years ago) saw a well-thought-out agenda where all the relevant issues were discussed- from the supposed tensions between openness and privacy, to the very important and interrelated issues of  transparency and trust, both within government and the private sector towards data collection and handling. In the build-up to the big event, there were a couple of interesting and thought-provoking blog posts written by some of these notable speakers. In particular, I highlight here the article (titled Opening Policy, Protecting Privacy) written by Tim Hughes where he raises some vital questions on how  governments use and should use the personal data at their disposal, while Sunil Abraham attempts to resolve the dichotomy between privacy and openness in this post.

Demonstration booths at open up

Demonstration booths at Open Up? 2014. Photo credit: Omidyar Network

The line up did live up to its billing and delivered in terms of the diversity of opinions and country-specific experiences that were shared. While much of the discussion at Open Up? 2014 centered around this particular community of interest groups and persons, I thought it was interesting how playwright  James Graham’s opening session highlighted how ordinary folks (the UK cinema audience to be exact) are taking an interest in privacy and surveillance and what these mean to them  in the age of ubiquitous technology and access to information. There is a valid concern here that often  we do not know what we are in fact ‘sharing’ via social media, services apps etc. and it’s good to see folks outside this (quite small) community engaging with this issue.


Back to basics on what should be open

So what is the current stand on open (data) by default? It is interesting to see that it’s back to basics about what data (set) should be open and what should not be open. It is fair to say there was no consensus reached on this.  However, we did make great inroads in questioning the implications of ‘open by default’ for the respect for human rights and privacy, especially in non-democratic  contexts where loss of privacy has particularly grave consequences.

While most people are still comfortable with the idea of ‘open’, what they are also asking for is a level of mandatory transparency by governments and corporate bodies about what is being collected and why. In a poll conducted during the event, poll 86% of the audience were of the view that their government is not making all data collection activities known. One speaker also called for an inventory of the scale of mechanisms on surveillance especially. It seems therefore that governments and corporate bodies making more information available to individuals is vitally important, but it’s only a necessary first step. It also cannot be overemphasized that the open data community needs to be more specific and emphatic about what is open data and what isn’t, especially since other government data-sharing activities can sometimes be misconstrued as such.

There are other relevant issues that are not so easily resolved either.  There is the concern that big data is increasingly under the control of only the state or a powerful few. There are quite scary future implications of this, and one of the speakers raised the point that  a culture of perceived low digital literacy among an important stakeholder group (i.e. policymakers) makes it difficult for them to  grasp the enormity of what this entails for any functioning democracy.

James Graham at OpenUp14

Playwright James Graham making the first presentation for the day. Photo credit: Omidyar Network

last panel for the day

Sunil Abraham, Timothy Garton Ash, Richard Allan and Pria Chetty discussing data collection and the private sector. Photo credit: Omidyar Network

There were a couple of surprisingly frank opinions on the floor. One speaker noted that some amount of surveillance is necessary, though in ‘tiny bits’. It is unclear what qualifies as tiny bits. Some others were of the of the view that there should be some limits to the the amount of (government) information that should be openly available, especially in the light of valid concerns about national security. Once again, where exactly we should draw the line between mandatory disclosure/transparency and  security/privacy is not always apparent.

As Stephen King (a partner at Omidyar Network) said in the closing remarks, the event intended to bring stakeholders from the different sectors together, and I think that is an extremely vital thing to do as it enables us to look at these thorny issues from different perspectives.


The photos and the videos from Open Up? 2014 have been made available, and more information can also be found via the event twitter feed (#OpenUp14).

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