Small Business
Author argues for openness
March 10, 2000: 4:00 p.m. ET

David Brin, writer of 'Transparent Society,' links information, accountability
By Staff Writer Steve Bills
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - When David Brin looks at the privacy debates now raging in media and government forums, he says he wants to tear his hair.
    Everybody from high government officials to Internet anarchists seems to want to defend the right of citizens to remain anonymous as they move through society, protected by privacy legislation or encryption software.
    Brin, a New York Times best-selling novelist (The Postman, Earth, The Uplift War) and author of the non-fiction book The Transparent Society, argues the other side of the issue: First, that attempts to hide information are doomed to failure; and second, that the main effect of secrecy rules will be to reduce the accountability of the wealthy and powerful, who have greater ability both to hide from public view and also to peer into the affairs of others.
    But in an interview with, Brin said he is encouraged by the reaction of the American public, who he said seems instinctively to understand that more openness and accountability are the best protections for personal freedom.
    Here are highlights from that interview:
    Q. As you survey the privacy landscape today, how do you feel about what you see?
    graphicA. I get irked when I see a premature coalescence around an unsupported cliche, like the one pushed by both wings of the strong privacy movement -- that our freedom, security, and safety will be enhanced by preventing other people from knowing things. At root it's a despotic and rather mean-minded approach. It's been tried by tyrants, kings, and priests, but it's not how we achieved the most successful human civilization in history. The trick we use, instead, is making sure no one can escape accountability.
    Look what we did to Bill Clinton last year, supposedly the most powerful man in the world. The only people who came out of Monicagate looking good were the American people. Not the impeachers and not Clinton, but the public. They were very interested, in a salacious sort of way, but not vindictive. People wanted to know all about what the powerful were doing, then decided that the punishment was already fitting the crime.
    Q: The shame and embarrassment all around was sufficient to settle the matter.
    A. In that case, yes. It's the glass-house effect. Make sure the mighty know they are watched. But since next time I might be the one under glass, let's have punishments that fit the crime, and move on. The public's attitude in Monicagate encouraged me that we may have the maturity to handle a transparent society.
    Q. In your science fiction novel Earth, you describe a world where secrecy is essentially illegal. Is that where you think we are headed?
    A. In the world I depict, you have to justify (keeping secrets), and people are especially skeptical when any elite tries to hide things. But the world I described is not where we're headed, to a large degree it's where we already are. In our civilization, most of the people know most of what's happening most of the time, yet nobody much cares about harmless secrets kept by harmless people. We have a sliding scale of privacy, defending some quiet schoolteacher who wants to keep confidential her psychological records, or records of a rape, or comments he made on a sex bulletin board when he was 17 -- everyone agrees this stuff is no one else's business.
    We don't feel the same way about the president of the United States -- or indeed, any member of an elite whose secrets may be dangerous. When it comes to the famous and the rich, our eyes naturally drift toward them. In the United States, according to modern consensus, libel laws, slander laws, invasion of privacy laws all give the rich and the powerful far less protection. No other civilization had this unique knack of holding the mighty accountable. In the past, transparency always went the other way.
    Above all, what matters most is whether harm might occur! If the secret you're hiding is about harm to someone else, your protection vanishes.
    Q. Like pedophile registries.
    A. Right. When it comes to issues of secrecy and privacy, people sensibly tend to ask themselves about the potential for harm, and demand openness from those who may plausibly damage others. This common sense attitude could get us through the coming info-age, if we stay calm.
    Take a look at our attitude toward eccentrics. One of the things people fear about a future transparent society is that it could lead to a majority quashing diversity or dissenting points of view, forcing homogenization of attitudes. "Suppose Brin is right about reciprocal transparency preventing 'Big Brother' -- let's say we have a transparent society where the mighty are scrutinized and they can never conspire against us. Still, we might get another kind of tyranny. You can imagine 60 percent of the population hounding everybody else for their eccentricities!"
    graphicIn other words, we may solve the problem of control by the mighty, only to hand power over to a mob. It is a genuine worry. Fortunately, that's not how things seem to be going.
    So far, modern people have instead reacted in the following way: Whenever they find out more about some eccentric individual or group, if that person or group is amiable and unharmful, tolerance for that group goes up. If that group is harmful or hateful, tolerance goes down. This has been true of the KKK and gays, Nazis and hippies. The one fundamental test that people use is the one we should use: Is this eccentricity harmful?
    Now I cannot explain why this is so. Why most of the public has been so sensible. But it's undeniably true. Let's build on it.
    Q. The Federal Trade Commission is taking a hard look at some of these Internet advertising guys, following your clicks, they're taking a hard look at some of these medical information sites to see what kind of information they're collecting and what they're doing with it. As you look at issues like that, what do you think?
    A. I am all in favor of pragmatic efforts to level the playing field. If someone is getting commercial benefit from information about you, then you should be paid for it. Data-collecting groups should be subject to intense disclosure and openness rules. There is nothing wrong with saying, "show me yours before I'll show you mine."
    It makes perfect sense for individuals to take pragmatic privacy steps. My transparency argument is about much larger-scale things, happening over the long term: For instance, don't imagine that any of these efforts will keep somebody 10 years from now from knowing most of the harmless facts about your life. You won't prevent it; there are a hundred reasons -- technological and social -- why leaks will occur.
    What we can do is to protect an inner zone of privacy by realizing which parts we can no longer defend and concentrating our efforts on those aspects we absolutely need, in order to remain free and safe and sane. This inner zone may be smaller than what our parents thought of as privacy, but if we have a free society, we will be able to defend it. Millions of sovereign voters will demand it.
    Q. Your book The Transparent Society has been out 1-1/2 years now, two years. What has the reception been? What kind of response have you gotten?
    A. I get a lot of consulting, speeches, interviews. The book itself hasn't sold worth beans. I'm glad I have a separate career.
    Some of these concepts -- about two way transparency and the ultimate importance of accountability -- tend to strike people as arcane and a bit obscure. And yet, at an instinctive level, people seem to already be doing what I cannot persuade the intelligentsia to discuss. They are picking those aspects of privacy that need vigorous defending -- having to do with the inner home, or potential harm -- while rejecting paranoiac calls for massive controls over information flows in a modern era that needs openness like a person needs air.
    I'm arguing we should defend what we already have, a mostly transparent, fantastically successful society.
    Naturally, there are core groups that like uneven information flows. Whenever an industry is told to increase its openness and accountability, they tend to scream that the sky will fall. Remember 20 years ago, what the credit reporting industry, TRW and all, said about people having access to their own records? Capitalism would be ruined! Now they utterly rely on feedback from individuals. They even make a little money from people checking their records.
    That's what Clinton is getting from hospitals about the notion of accountability for medical errors that hurt people. They cry that if lists of errors are kept, it will destroy modern medicine. Every time a group sees accountability looming, they squirm. It's human nature.
    Contrary to what some have said, I'm not prescribing nakedness. I have no objection to the meek getting more privacy protections than the powerful. That makes me the moderate, and the strong-privacy guys the radicals.
    What I'm saying over and over is that one thing, above all, has protected us from the abuse of power that ruined every past civilization. That new knack has been our ability, as a free people, to enforce accountability from the mighty. Let's not forget that in a panicky rush for secrecy. Back to top


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