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Tim Berners-Lee Says WikiLeaks Is Not Open Government Data

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Earlier this week, Tim Berners-Lee, the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and inventor of the World Wide Web, expressed some of his views on WikiLeaks, putting them in context with his efforts on open government and open data.

Embedded below is video of his answer to a question from the audience at the 2010 Information and Communication Technologies and Development Conference at the Royal Holloway University of London.



Berners-Lee was clear on one count: Open government data is data about a country which "is not personally identifiable information about individuals. It does not have privacy issues associated with it. And it does not military or state secrets." That's inline with the definition for open government that the Obama administration advanced in its directive last December, or the perspective that Berners-Lee provided at the first International Open Government Data Conference.

When you look at government, there is a huge amount of information in that category," he said. "If you are working on open data in your government, you can work on a huge amount of data. All the mapping data out there, where the potholes are...there's a huge amount of financial data, for example, which you put out there." It may be "touching anything which is military...the money that is spent on the Army, the Navy and Air Force, and yes, after a certain point, you don't say how many bullets have you bought...but the vast majority of that data is data which is valuable to everybody in the country, it's public, and it's not the sort of thing which is embarrassing to people particularly, though if it is embarrassing [unintelligible -- maybe "you're going to find people are embarrassed about it].

In the context of open government and WikiLeaks, Berners-Lee's position appears clear: the data that constitutes the Iraqi War Logs, Afghan War Diaries or "Cablegate" does not represent open government. WikiLeaks could, perhaps, be said to have opened government data, but not to be a host for open government data.

What happened recently on WikiLeaks was that somebody stole information, somebody had privileged access to information, betrayed the trust put in them in their job, and took information which should not have been, according to their employer, released, and they released it.

Berners-Lee also addressed the question of the radical transparency WikiLeaks represent, which has proved to be a contentious issue:

When we talk about transparency, we're not talking about breaking confidentiality, breaking state secrets or military secrets. What's funny is that people have focused on one individual who is part of the crowd of people involved in WikiLeaks as though they make the leaks. They didn't make the leak. WikiLeaks, despite their name, do not make leaks. They just provide a service of putting things on the Web.

The presence of WikiLeaks also introduces a larger issue of anonymity online, which Berners-Lee considered:

There is an interesting question, which I don't know the answer to at the end of the day, as to whether it is very, very important for somebody to be anonymous, or at the end of the day, it's just very, very important for society as a whole to be able to remove somebody's anonymity. I think both thing's true...and they'll...battle up eventually to occasionally ending up in the Supreme Court because both things are important.

Berners-Lee did not provide the audience with a clear way forward, driving home the complexity that free societies face in untangling how to preserve protections for the accountability that the press provides in the context of the disruption to institutions that the Internet continues to create.

The whistleblower idea is very important to democracy, for the overturning of repressive regimes. The idea that the press should be able to not reveal their sources, for example, is a very important principle, and the fact that people should be accountable for what they say, and that you can't just go out there anonymously insulting people, libeling them, creating havoc, which then spreads uncontrolled [?] damage across the blogosphere without any kind of accountability. That's an important principle too. Obviously these principles are in conflict. And we, as a society, have to work out rules which allow us to have norms on both sides of the line, which allow both principles to survive, and where they are in total conflict, have a way of resolving in each case. That's my feeling I've been asked that question a few times.

Last month, Berners-Lee wrote an important article in the Scientific American that called for support for continued open standards and neutrality on the Web that goes into many of these issues in more depth.

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