Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/05/data_sharing_partii/

Big brother gets Web 2.0 makeover

Information sharing for the people

By Mark Ballard

Posted in Law, 5th March 2007 11:10 GMT

Comment "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - nothing more and nothing less". - Humpty Dumpty in Wonderland

A British web evangelist has been commissioned to consider how the government might intervene in independent web communities.

The Cabinet Office has commissioned Tom Steinberg, the web advocate who runs the Prime Minister's e-petitions website, to write a report that defines how the government might get involved in the citizen web and link it to government services.

Steinberg became an official advocate of government intervention in the web when he joined the launch of a curious offshoot of the Cabinet Office's wide-ranging policy review last month. To date, the policy review has considered how data protection law might be watered down so the Cabinet Office can implement its "Information Sharing Vision".

Yet Steinberg's appearance on the scene last month as the officially nominated representative of the web "community" was heralded by a new application of the Cabinet Office's "information sharing" moniker.

Till now, the policy review's definition of information sharing accorded with everyone else's. The government has talked of breaking down barriers between departments that cause people inconvenience by forcing them to deal with multpile departments, for example to report a death. It also concerned how the government might share information between its databases so it can create profiles of people who have the potential to cause harm and then intervene in their lives to make sure they don't. As you might expect, information sharing is quite a controversial idea.

Now the Cabinet Office is also using "information sharing" to describe the whole contemporary web phenomenon - web 2.0, the blogosphere, or whatever you want to call it; till now, the web has not needed any government to give it a label.

Last month, Steinberg and his chums at the Cabinet Office hosted a seminar of successful community web-heads like netmums who where all "hailed" by the government spin-meisters as "a new force for social progress". They were lauded for bringing "power to the people" and "democratising information".

Tell us something we don't know. But think: these people all share information - that's basically what the web is, it's communication, information sharing. Can the web lend the government's information sharing plans an innocuous veneer?

As it happens, Cabinet Office minister Hilary Armstrong announced that her policy review would be casting its net over the citizen information sharers as well.

"The issue is about enabling rather than monitoring the appetite people have for sharing information," said Armstrong in a statement. "We want people to be armed with the information that allows them to be independent and in control of their lives - driving up public service standards through their suggestions and scrutiny."

That's fair enough, as The Guardian newspaper reported. But it did all sound rather like Armstrong was trying to catch some of the Web 2.0 magic dust and sprinkle it over the government's more controversial ideas for information sharing.

But are we putting two and two together to make five? Steinberg himself prefers to call the web phenomenon social media rather than information sharing. He told The Register that his review wouldn't touch on the government's Information Sharing Vision: "I know these are really important issues, but this report's not about them. It's about information that's public."

Yet Guy Herbert, general secretary of the NO2ID campaign group said he believed the Cabinet Office's wider use of the term information sharing was no coincidence: "The DCA and the PM's delivery office have decided they want to abolish confidentiality, data protection, and ultra vires, as regards official use of information, and the attack is on several fronts."

Part of its method was to sell the benefits of information sharing in general. Then further, by aggrandising the idea that information sharing would create an omniscient state that could use its extensive knowledge of ordinary people's lives to make helpful interventions. Bad people would be stopped before they would do anything wrong.

It is a utopian vision, indeed. And certainly science fiction, no? Perhaps not. NO2ID's parliamentary briefing on the Serious Crime Bill noted how this philosophy had already been worked into policy.

"In common with other data-sharing powers recently brought forward by the government, there is an attempt to vitiate data protection, rights to private life and common law confidentiality by legislative sleight-of-hand. Some of the regulatory powers granted make a mockery of ultra vires and parliamentary oversight. This is consistent with the government's Information Sharing Vision statement, if not with the rule of law," it said.

Steinberg's review, as Armstrong put it, will not consider how the government might tame the web, but how it might encourage certain parts of it. The government wants to see how it can make the web better.

"The key question might be, in relation to the health and vibrancy and effectiveness [of the web], is there anything the government should be doing," said Steinberg.

Leave well alone, perhaps? ®