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October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.