What is Information Sharing?

Further reflections on the Government’s Information Sharing proposals

In one ordinary usage, sharing means sharing something out or dividing up. If I share my Kit Kat with you, I have one bar, and you get the other. It is clear that information sharing is not like that, because after I have shared my information I still have all the information I shared, even though you have it is well. In Information sharing, everyone, in principle, can have as many bars of my Kit Kat as they want, and though I might be worse off, it isn’t because I have fewer Kit Kats. Duplication is not the same thing as sharing out.

In another ordinary usage, “sharing” means having something in common. We share common values with the Americans, or someone else. By this we don’t usually mean that we had to share something out in order to have something in common. We have something in common because of an identical history or experience, even if we have gone our separate ways since. In one sense this is not a form of sharing at all.

When data controllers access a common database they access an identical database, and the purpose of data sharing (which isn’t sharing out) is to establish an identical database (which isn’t a shared database)

So it seems that while the Government’s proposals are meant to facilitate Information Sharing, on examination they appear not to involve sharing information at all.

The question is, is something going on here which is more than the usual situation of draft legislation which is poorly worded and which could, in principle, be sharpened up? Or is there something particularly difficult about legislating for the information world and about regulating it? There is some reason for thinking this is so. While we would expect to see guidance to the law and on compliance in this area, what we also see is an unusual amount of guidance about guidance, the drift towards simplification which rather than being comforting suggests that no one understands what is going on.

So do these very practical difficulties which we are all familiar with arise from problems about language and the concepts we use to describe the information world? I think that in part they do.

One of the difficulties, I think, is that the digital information world has counter intuitive features which subvert our normal understandings and verbal usages. I have described one such small situation above, in which the duplication of data, and the accessing of an identical database, makes it difficult to assimilate these to ordinary concepts of sharing, even though that is what we are claiming to do, and “sharing” is the word we are relying on.

In part this is because the duplication of information undermines our concept of the identical, which is necessary to the concept of sharing (these conceptual difficulties are also reflected in the ID card scheme).

It is often said that Directive 95/46/EC is outdated because of developments in the information world since it was adopted, and there is some truth in that. However, we should recognise that the Directive didn’t describe the digital world very well because it didn’t need to. At that time the digital world was still contained, more or less, within a traditional personal and organisational world. Now we know it isn’t.

Information sharing is a good paradigm of how digital information reality now escapes our attempt to bring it within our human purposes and intentions. One result of this is that it looks as if the Government in the Information Sharing proposals is concealing its real intentions, provoking what I think are mistaken accusations (at the moment) about the Big Brother state. But if you can’t pin the words to the reality, what are you doing when you agree to a set of proposals?

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