So soon after the technologist's death, the White House making research public deserves only cautious praise
We can all pretty much agree that making public and freely available the fruits of federally funded research is important and good. As such, we can be pleased with the recent announcement that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has mandated that federal agencies with more than $100 million in R&D expenditures develop plans to make the published results of their research freely available to the public within one year of publication.
We can also probably agree that Aaron Swartz, the brilliant technologist who committed suicide facing trumped up federal charges, who long advocated for free access to scientific research, would have been pleased with the announcement. And it’s fair to say, as some commentators already have, that increased support for Swartz’s open data activism since his death helped prompt the government announcement. A White House website petition calling for free access to federally funded research had garnered 65,000 signatures.
But if this is a victory for Swartz and his supporters it is Pyrrhic at best. At worst, it is just the latest example of the Obama administration’s selective and deeply flawed approach to open data and transparency.
“The Obama administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for,” wrote OSTP director John Holdren, commending the announcement. But — as Aaron Swartz learned all too well — the Obama administration will bring the full force of the law against those seeking access to research and information which the government has not already sanctioned for free public view. Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond, to name two pertinent examples, know too well that the Obama administration has very different feelings about public access to information on the fruits of other federally funded activity. A number of senators seeking access to legal opinions on targeted killings are learning this lesson too.
I’ve drawn on this essay before, but it bears reference again here. In a piece last year for the New Inquiry, Sarah Leonard noted that this administration has consistently embraced transparency in the form of making public mountains of data while black boxing information as and when it chooses. She wrote:
The omnipresent ideal of transparency in government rests heavily on the virtuous data dump; the display of lots of information online has itself come to symbolize transparent, healthy democracy. But when a state disgorges useless and disorganized information, it swamps our capacity to make sense of it and becomes obfuscatory. And worse, such generous state oversharing makes it easy for states and social-media corporations to turn the tables and rationalize their relentless invasion of our privacy as a similar respect for transparency…
… Each federal agency is required to maintain an “Open Government Webpage” dedicated to transparency — and to release lots and lots of data via data.gov, which was launched in 2009 to enable “the public to participate in government by providing downloadable federal datasets to build applications, conduct analyses, and perform research.” It takes the view that putting something — anything, really — online is equivalent to full public disclosure. So while even the CIA has a transparency page now (!), it’s not exactly throwing sunlight on what’s happening at the agency today.
This is not to say that the information from federally funded research will be “useless and disorganized,” but rather to highlight a pattern under this administration of making claims to openness, accountability and transparency with these sorts of data and information releases. But when an executive has total control over when and how it is transparent, it’s an empty notion of accountability indeed.
I am reminded of the OSTP’s announcement last month of a Civic Hacking Day scheduled for early June, on which government data will be made available to technologists, encouraged to design programs and apps for public use. As I noted at the time, there is a sick irony to government’s affirmation of “civic” hacking while hackivists like Hammond face potential life sentences and open data activist Swartz was driven to death for his efforts.
Swartz’s death has importantly rallied support around the issues he cared deeply about — among them public access to scientific and academic research. However, Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, wrote Tuesday about her anger at the Justice Department’s seemingly politically motivated pursuit of Swartz. She noted, “I worked my ass off to elect the Obama administration in 2008. I helped these people get in power. And then they drove the man I loved to suicide because they didn’t like something he said once.” On the same day such a statement is published, you’ll excuse me if I don’t invoke Swartz’s name to celebrate a decision on open data by the Obama administration.
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email firstname.lastname@example.org. More Natasha Lennard.
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