An interesting thing happened today in the debate over US and UK berserker surveillance practices. In a collective protest, human rights, civil rights and accountability groups sent a letter to the Open Government Partnership calling on member countries to “overhaul privacy laws, protect whistleblowers, and increase transparency on surveillance mechanisms.”
The way OGP works, governments submit “action plans
” with a roster of commitments to improve transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Many of the plans emphasize improved Freedom of Information, open data and rule of law mechanisms.
OGP has generated a lot of energy. It has kickstarted a conversation about accountability on the international stage and among the 62
participating countries. But it has yet to prove its power
to unleash change. Declarations are easier than prosecutions. Open data portals look good, but data means little without a community
of data-savvy reformers.
So it is interesting to see that more than 100 groups and individuals–including Oxfam, POGO, Privacy International, ACCESS Info Europe, several chapters of Transparency International, leading activist Aruna Roy and tech thinkers I admire like David Eaves
and Katrin Verclas
–all believe that OGP can be an effective forum to push governments to clean up their act on high-tech spying. (See the full letter as a PDF here
The power of technology to improve democracy is a major focus in the OGP, and web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a regular participant, is spearheading the effort to put surveillance higher on the OGP agenda. Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation
was created in part to reduce the threats of “government controls” on web activity.
And it’s not the first time the open government community has questioned the integrity
of certain OGP countries. Advocacy groups spoke out strongly
when OGP participant South Africa drafted an authoritarian anti-whistleblower law.
An intriguing subplot to this new outcry is that both the OGP and the new journalism project
launched by crusader reporters Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others are backed by philanthropist Pierre Omidyar
Granted, OGP relies on money from multiple funders
and time and effort from all participating governments. But there’s something notable–and very 2013–about one Omidyar project ramping up to speak truth to power while another faces new scrutiny for its effectiveness as a facilitator of government reform. Unless a more explicit conflict of interest emerges, it’s encouraging to see Omidyar supporting change from within and from without at the same time.
The Open Government Partnership is, like the name says, a partnership of many governments, so it’s hard to predict what sort of response would be the most forceful. But with the United States and the UK as founding and former chairs of the initiative, it’s nice to think that they and the current leadership
could take the opportunity Berners-Lee, Roy and the letter’s cosigners are giving them to join the fray.