03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Privacy vs. Power in Gov 2.0

One of the goals of Gov 2.0, as I've written before, is to increase citizens' power over their own lives by participating in their own governing.

In my last post, I outlined one way for people to do that: help write laws and investigate which groups and individuals have had their language inserted into bills. This raises the issue of privacy, and here I stand apart from some of my friends in government. Here's what I said in my last post:

Users who want to edit actual bills would need to register under their real names (users who want to edit the discussion pages only could register under pseudonyms);

Leaving aside technical issues (how would you ensure that the 'real name' someone uses is their actual real name?), the fundamental question is: why should people be required to divulge their identity if they want to participate in Gov 2.0, and what are they getting in return?

I'll answer by way of The Parable of the Town Hall. Imagine that a city is holding hearings on the plans for building a new school. The meeting will cover questions like Where will the school be located? Will it have a band room, an indoor pool, a multimedia lab and screening room, or dance room with mirrored walls? Will the cafeteria allow outside vendors to open kiosks?

Obviously, the answers to these questions will benefit some parents more than others, and certainly will benefit some businesses more than others. So my question is: should the people who speak at the town halls be allowed to wear masks and disguise their voices, or should they have to state their names and let their neighbors know their positions?

You could argue that if people are allowed to speak anonymously, they could be completely truthful. Maybe my neighbor's daughter is a really good swimmer, and I don't want to upset her by saying that an indoor pool is a terrible use of space and resources. Or maybe I work for a developer who said he'd fire anyone who spoke out against his proposed location for the school.

But I think the stronger arguments favor revealing speakers' identities. Further, these arguments extend well beyond the example of the town hall. I could see applications ranging from legislative Wikis to local public hearings on federal rules, to the digital submission of amicus briefs. In short, any time citizens want to express their first amendment right to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Through digital channels, they should give up some measure of privacy, just as they do in the physical world.

And, online as in the physical world, citizens must be able to:

  1. Evaluate the speaker as part of evaluating the speech;
  2. Assure themselves that the speaker is completely invested in the community, not only in the project; and
  3. Scrutinize the people who would lay claim to leadership roles in the community.

Evaluating the speaker

The two questions people ask (or should) when they hear someone arguing for a cause is: is this person trustworthy (which means both, are they honest and do they know what they're talking about) and also what benefit does this person stand to gain? It's hard to answer either of those if the speaker conceals her identity.

Assuring investment

It's important to know that the speaker not only understands what is at stake, but also is a stakeholder herself. It could be seen as part of evaluating the speaker, perhaps. In legal terms, it's called 'standing.' You want to know that the woman speaking in your town hall actually lives in your town.

Scrutinizing those in power

This is the most important aspect, especially in Gov 2.0, since it is so easy to obscure one's identity, and even one's activity, online. In America, we tacitly accept that the more political power a person wields, the less privacy they have. The more influence you try to exert, however, the less privacy you have. Here is a kind of escalating scale of power (or declining scale of privacy, depending on how you look at it):

  1. If you don't vote, donate, or participate in government in any way, you have nearly total privacy (in terms of government--your neighbors, I'm afraid, can snoop all they want).
  2. If you vote, which is the least amount of power you can exert, people know that you have a political preference, but they don't know what the preference is.
  3. If you speak at a town hall meeting, the people in attendance know what you think and who you are, but people who aren't there will have to comb through the minutes to find out the content of your speech, or even that you spoke. And, come on, who's gonna do that?
  4. If you give more than $250 to a politician, you must report your name, address, and employer and anyone can find you in the FEC database (or, even easier, on this map).
  5. If you take a job in a representative's office, you'll be on Legistorm, showing your salary, trips, and other information.
  6. If you run for office, kiss your privacy goodbye. If you hold office, people will make things up about you solely for the purpose of exposing them. See: Clinton, Hillary, and the murder of Vince Foster.

(This list is by no means comprehensive, but illustrates my point pretty well, I think.)

I would put participating in Gov 2.0 between steps three and four. The fact that a digital record is kept and can be easily accessed and searched makes involvement in Gov 2.0 more open than a town hall meeting, but its immediacy and durability also make it a more effective way to influence policy. Investigating people who are participating in Gov 2.0, however, falls between steps two and three. That's because journalists or bloggers who investigate participants are influencing policy only indirectly, so they wield less power and thus should have more anonymity. Also, they are more able to do their job better without revealing their identity.

One important exception

An important caveat would be when revealing one's identity in a public forum puts a person at risk. For example, say a hearing was being held about youth violence and a neighborhood was considering a curfew. Speakers might feel that they were putting themselves or their families at risk by speaking out. I'll discuss ways to handle these kinds of examples in a future post.

More on Privacy

If you want to read more on Privacy, check out the Privacy Camp DC site and follow PricavyCamp on twitter. Good, smart people!