US embraces openness as EU considers ‘chilling’ anti-free speech law – Catherine Stihler

Donald Trump may be fiercely protective of his own private data, but the US just passed the Open Government Data Act, while the EU is considering a new law that could have a chilling effect on free speech, writes Catherine Stihler.
Protesters in Berlin call for an open society and decry increasing divisions in Europe  (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Protesters in Berlin call for an open society and decry increasing divisions in Europe  (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Protesters in Berlin call for an open society and decry increasing divisions in Europe (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Data has become a fundamental part of our digital lives. When you turn on Netflix, your data is used to decide which TV shows and films to recommend. When you buy something from Amazon or eBay and it suggests another product, that’s using your data.

It is used by mobile phone apps to find a Tinder date, recommend a restaurant, or identify a celebrity you might like to follow on Twitter or Instagram.

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Enough new data is generated every day to fill around 10 million Blu-ray discs. It is changing our lives, and as John F Kennedy said, “change is the law of life – and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future”.

But the sheer amount of data owned by companies like Google and Facebook has caused alarm.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, when the private data from millions of people’s Facebook profiles was harvested for political purposes, demonstrated how it can be misused.

There is an important balance to be struck to ensure that personal data is kept private, but we must also harness the power of open data and unleash its potential for the public good.

Open data is different to the stash of private data about you that Google has. It is data that can be freely used, modified and shared by anyone for any purpose. That means there are no legal, technological or social restrictions.

In the last century, philosopher Karl Popper argued that openness to analysis and questioning would foster social and political progress. His vision can today be seen in the way that open data can enhance our 21st century life.

There are cities in Europe using real-time sensor data to let motorists know the precise availability of parking spaces on streets.

Open data can help the environment, by analysing usage trends in how we treat household waste, it can improve the health of a nation by predicting outbreaks of diseases, and it can allow authorities to respond to extreme weather events like snowstorms and floods in a more coordinated way.

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And it can benefit consumers as well. Last week at a technology conference in Edinburgh, I met with a Scottish company called Get Market Fit, which has designed a free online tool called Think Check. It lets shoppers check whether a product or seller is all it seems and warn you if you’re being exposed to fakes, fraud or shopping scams.

When open data becomes useful, usable and used – when it is accessible and meaningful and can help someone solve a problem – that’s when it becomes open knowledge.

Yesterday, I started my new role as chief executive of Open Knowledge International.

The organisation has set the global standard for genuinely free and open sharing of information, building on the vision of founder Dr Rufus Pollock who wants to create an open information age.

This is not just about making our lives easier. Open knowledge can make powerful institutions more accountable, and vital research information can help us tackle challenges such as poverty, disease and climate change.

If we know how governments spend our money — both their plans and the reality — they are more accountable to citizens.

Today, the UK Government informs taxpayers about how their money has been spent, with breakdowns for areas such as health, transport and defence. That transparency came about in part because of the work carried out by Open Knowledge International.

We’re now taking that approach around the world and working with governments in countries from Mexico to Cameroon to make them more accountable to citizens.

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In the US, President Donald Trump is fiercely protective of his own private data – no doubt he has a lot to hide – but his administration has passed the OPEN Government Data Act, which means that all public data made available by the American government must be in a format accessible by electronic devices as long as publication doesn’t harm privacy or security.

That will allow businesses, journalists, and academics to use the vast supply of federal government data to develop innovative products and services, conduct research, and ensure greater oversight of this administration and future ones.

There have been many gains in recent years that have made our society more open, with experts – be they scientists, entrepreneurs or campaigners – using data for the common good.

But openness is now under threat.

In my time as a Member of the European Parliament for Scotland, I passionately championed consumer rights, most recently when it came to copyright law. The European Union is today looking to introduce a copyright crackdown that would place strict “monitoring obligations” on sites such as Google, leading to the automatic removal of legal online content which will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

This could include vital open data that citizens and academics could use to improve society – a threat to openness we must avoid.

But more widely, even the acceptance of basic facts is under threat, with many expert views dismissed and a culture of ‘anti-intellectualism’ from those on the extremes of politics. Facts are simply branded “fake news”.

The rise of the far right and the far left brings with it an authoritarian approach that could return us to a closed society. The way forward is to resuscitate the three foundations of tolerance, facts and ideas, to prevent the drift to the extremes.

The poet Robert Frost, who spoke at JFK’s inauguration, wrote about a man who said “good fences make good neighbours”. But the truth is that good neighbours don’t put up fences – they share knowledge across an open space.

It is incumbent on today’s leaders to become good neighbours so that we can build a more open world.

Catherine Stihler is chief executive of Open Knowledge International