Lessig: control transparency? No way!

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Government, Transparency | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

I doubt that Lawrence Lessig or his editors meant to set a trap when they titled his article “Against Transparency”. Nonetheless, they’ve bagged some prominent bloggers, who all assume that the piece argues that transparency can and should be controlled:

  • “Larry supplies a very cogent argument against the disclosure of too much data from Congressional members.” (Brian Drake)
  • “Naked transparency, the thinking goes, is really a push for Congress to talk its coat off…. In other words, an extremist position has the effect of simply tugging the political center closer towards openness” (Nancy Scola)
  • “He’s against transparency as the sole requirement for political reform, and he’s against the transparent dumping of data without tools for making sense of it.” (David Weinberger)

Drake, Scola, and Weinberger make broader arguments that are well worth reading, but in these sections, they miss Lessig’s point. As I read him, arguing for restrictions on transparency make as little sense as arguing that hurricanes and earthquakes should spare larger cities. And”naked transparency” is no mere rhetorical ploy, just as a tsunami warning is a rather more than suggestion that sunbathers move their towels a few feet up the shore.

(Weinberger has written at least three posts in response to Lessig. In his first piece, a careful walkthrough, he catches Lessig’s point precisely, when he writes “We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info…. We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect.” In a second piece, Weinberger both gets and misses this point . He’s correct in noting that, in warning of the catastrophe of cynicism transparency may create, Lessig is no Internet triumphalist. But, contra Weinberger, Lessig is in a sense a determinist when he argues that transparency can’t be stopped.)

Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable. Just as newspapers have failed to restrict Google News and Craigslist, and as the recording industry has largely failed in its legal and technological efforts to restrict file-sharing, efforts to restrict transparency will fail as well:

In all these cases, the response to the problem is to attack the source of the problem: the freedom secured by the network. In all these cases, the response presumes that we can return to a world where the network did not disable control.

But the network is not going away.

He has serious concerns about transparency, but he spends not a word arguing that it should be restricted. Instead, he seeks

a solution … that accepts that transparency is here to stay–indeed, that it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear–but that avoids the harms that transparency creates…

More about this later, but puh-leeze note that Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable, not that it can be restriced.

2 Comments on “Lessig: control transparency? No way!”

  1. 1 Brian Drake said at 10:23 am on October 16th, 2009:

    @Chris– Thanks for the ping-back. I concur with your analysis. I don’t think that Larry is making a value statement on transparency, just about its application. Transparency, without context and direct need, can be destructive. For example, you may not want to expose the salaries of everyone who works in an office or company. That data is sensitive and probably would raise serious privacy concerns. Likewise, perhaps its a good idea to expose the calendars of Congress members, but what about Federal Executives? Congress is explicitly accountable to its constituency. Are Federal Executives accountable to every citizen? In some ways, yes. But those same executives have rights as private citizens.

    My analysis is that Lessig is arguing for, broadly, moderation, consideration, and pause when advocating for more “sunlight” on our public officials. There can be blow-back and damage to our collective interests.

    Great post, BTW, thanks for advancing the debate.

  2. 2 A question of transparency - Dave Herrera (.org) said at 11:52 am on October 24th, 2009:

    […] Chris Berendes, Lessig: control transparency? No way! […]

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