January 18, 2017

The New Ambiguity of "Open Government"

David Robinson and I have just released a draft paper—The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”—that describes, and tries to help solve, a key problem in recent discussions around online transparency. As the paper explains, the phrase “open government” has become ambiguous in a way that makes life harder for both advocates and policymakers, by combining the politics of transparency with the technologies of open data. We propose using new terminology that is politically neutral: the word adaptable to describe desirable features of data (and the word inert to describe their absence), separately from descriptions of the governments that use these technologies.

Clearer language will serve everyone well, and we hope this paper will spark a conversation among those who focus on civic transparency and innovation. Thanks to Justin Grimes and Josh Tauberer, for their helpful insight and discussions as we drafted this paper.

Download the full paper here.


“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last few years, that traditional meaning has blurred, and has shifted toward technology.

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.

PrivAds: Behavioral Advertising without Tracking

There’s an interesting new paper out of Stanford and NYU, about a system called “PrivAds” that tries to provide behavioral advertising on web sites, without having a central server gather detailed information about user behavior. If the paper’s approach turns out to work, it could have an important impact on the debate about online advertising and privacy.

Advertisers have obvious reasons to show you ads that match your interests. You can benefit too, if you see ads that are relevant to your needs, rather than ones you don’t care about. The problem, as I argued in my Congressional testimony, comes when sites track your activities, and build up detailed files on you, in order to do the targeting.

PrivAds tries to solve this problem by providing behavioral advertising without having any server track you. The idea is that your own browser will track you, and analyze your online activities to build a model of your interests, but your browser won’t reveal this information to anyone else. When a site wants to show you an interest-based ad, your browser will choose the ad from a portfolio of ads offered by the ad service.

The tricky part is how your browser can do all of this without incidentally leaking your activities to the server. For example, the ad agency needs to know how many times each ad was shown. How can you report this to the ad service without revealing which ads you saw? PrivAds offers a solution based on fancy cryptography, so that the ad agency can aggregate reports from many users, without being able to see the users’ individual reports. Similarly, every interaction between your browser and the outside must be engineered carefully so that behavioral advertising can occur but the browser doesn’t telegraph your actions.

It’s not clear at this point whether the PrivAds approach will work, in the sense of protecting privacy without reducing the effectiveness of ad targeting. It’s clear, though, that PrivAds is asking an important question.

If the PrivAds approach succeeds, demonstrating that behavioral advertising does not require tracking, this doesn’t mean that companies will stop wanting to track you — but it does mean that they won’t be able to use advertising as an excuse to track you.

Fascinating New Blog: ComputationalLegalStudies.com

I was inspired to post the essay I discussed in the prior post by the debut of the best new law blog I have seen in a long time, Computational Legal Studies, featuring the work of Daniel Katz and Michael Bommarito, both graduate students in the University of Michigan’s political science department.

Every single blog they have posted has caused me to smack my head once for not having thought of the idea first, and a second time for not having their datasets and skillz. Their visualization of who has gotten TARP funds and how they’re connected to legislators deserves to be printed on posters and hung up in newsrooms across the country (not to mention in offices on Capitol Hill). They’ve also shown good taste by building a bridge to this blog, linking favorably back to the great CITP work led by David Robinson on government openness.

I will have more to say about Dan and Mike’s new blog in the weeks and months to come, but for now it is enough to welcome them to the blogosphere.