The boom in social e-networking and the rise in user-accessibility of the internet has driven citizens of all nations around the globe to open their private lives to others in a way hitherto unseen. My LinkedIn page contains more than just my contact details – any wandering psychologist could form a pretty cogent psychoanalysis of me just from a glance at my public page.
This move towards personal transparency is being reflected at a higher level, too. ‘Government 2.0’ refers to the use of technology to improve government transparency. For major democratic powers – especially representative democracies such as the UK, where individual leaders are voted in by local constituency – this is an opportunity to improve their public accountability. While ‘going transparent’ undoubtedly has some political leaders on edge, it’s becoming publicly expected. To not join the bandwagon is almost to declare that your government has something to hide.
While there are many routes to transparency – from Facebook or LinkedIn profiles for agencies to Twitter handles for individual politicians – among the most hawkish of watchers is the Open Source community. Their interest is understandable – Microsoft believes that “the heart of Gov 2.0 is open communication”, and that’s an ethos that the Open Source community share. ‘Open Source’ software refers to software that is communicable, alterable and dispensable by anyone. At its heart is ‘free’ as in ‘freedom’. Open Source software should be a perfect match for Government 2.0.
But is it? There are fractures in the Open Government façade that may serve to derail its claims of transparency. Privacy-restraining bills such as ACTA and SOPA carry a message from Governments across the world: we need to be in control of what you do on the internet. While the Open Source community typically has no problem with mild regulation in everyday life, most would draw the line at the point that their code’s freedom of distribution is curtailed in any way.
Governments being the unwieldy and often self-contradictory machines they are, there has been recognition in recent years of the value of individual digital freedom. The US government announced in early 2010 that proprietary software made in the US (such as software to control printers) could be exported to Iran, Sudan and Cuba – a right that many other US products have been denied. Of course, the Open Source community has been able to do this for years.
The determining factor in this relationship between Government 2.0 and Open Source projects is going to be this: do Governments see digital communications as an excellent way to increase accountability and transparency, or do they see it as an opportunity to expand their policy further in to the digital domain? If the former, there is a host of Open-Source projects that would leap on board to help. I’d hope Governments would pay attention to their offerings – the cost savings could be huge (many Open Source projects are distributed free of charge). However, if it’s the latter, I think we will see some serious clashes in the digital field. And not just between Governments and the free software movement – the list of corporations standing against privacy bills such as SOPA numbers in the hundreds.
What do you think? Do you believe that Government and free software go hand-in-hand? Are there considerations which should be made? Should we implement something to restrain the hand of government in the digital sphere? Let us know your opinion by dropping a comment in to the section below.
[Image via Not Bruce Lee]