Open data – but how much is too much?

When government data is so often released in unhelpful formats, with a lack of useful detail, or just not at all under the strictures of the Data Protection Act, it’s a common reaction to demand greater – perhaps total – openness of data.

But it’s worth taking a step back from the irritation at receiving a PDF with details removed for data protection reasons and considering whether we want such transparency in practice – or just in theory.

Take, for example, the MPs’ expenses scandal. Much of that could not have been reported had the Telegraph not had access to private data, namely the home addresses of MPs. Indeed, it was while redactions designed to obscure that very information were being implemented that a copy of the full data was leaked to the newspaper.

This information was vital for understanding the practice of ‘flipping’, and exposing that was undeniably in the public interest. Yet it’s also interesting to look at what the Telegraph didn’t do: publish all of those addresses in the name of transparency, whether or not it had any other cause to.

This is the sort of troublesome case that falls awkwardly and squarely into the the type of information we’d like responsible journalists to have access to, but not to publish unless strictly necessary.

And that immediately throws up all sorts of ethical and practical problems. How do we decide who’s a responsible journalist? Is it even possible? Do they need to be vetted by someone? What’s the definition of ‘strictly necessary’? And why should journalists be given special access anyway?

If we accept (for the moment) that a) there is some information we would like journalists to at least have access to in case there really is a public interest nugget hidden in it and b) we can’t really distinguish the good hacks from the bad, we get to the point of allowing all journalists access to a lot of information.

But that’s tricky too. It would, for example, allow for fishing expeditions like the phone-hacking practiced by the News of the World, as long as the newspaper didn’t publish information not in the public interest. It could certainly – and often is, most notably by Paul McMullan – be argued that there’s a possibility of finding something of public interest in John Prescott’s voicemails. But do we really want to say that that possibility makes it alright to invade privacy like that, even if the information is never published?

If the answer that last question is no, then we have to accept that some information in the public interest won’t be able to come out. Or might, but it’ll be another awkward situation where what happened is technically illegal (under laws designed to prevent fishing expeditions in private data) but the public interest means there’s no prosecution.

If there’s prima facie (pre-existing) evidence to suggest evidence of wrongdoing that can also bolster a newspaper’s defence – but wouldn’t have for the Telegraph. They had no idea that ‘flipping’ even existed before receiving the stolen disc.

In fact, while none of this is an easy or particularly satisfying compromise it looks for now like the most usable one. It’s especially difficult because the notion of ‘public interest’ is famously woolly, but until someone comes up with a coherent alternative that not just respects transparency but also privacy, it’s the best we’ve got.

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