Inside Out: Cultural Reflections on Freedom of Information and Data Protection.

FoI and Data Protection have separate and disparate origins, but both have emerged into a culture which in some respects subdues or subverts the effects they were intended to achieve.

FoI has its origins in Constitutional Reform, and was implemented in some countries well before the UK. Open Government is the objective, and better government because more open. Transparency is all. But in spite of the big objectives, in many ways the general culture was there much earlier. In the UK, FoI was behind the cultural times rather than in front of them.

Postmodern culture, the dominant cultural movement of the second part of the 20th century, is essentially about transparency and democratic openness. Take the Centre Pompidou, where the insides are on the outside, as a presiding motif. Take with it the playful rejection of seriousness, of the idea that there is a big truth somewhere, some revelatory set of facts.

FoI has delivered transparency of a kind, but has not delivered a revelation, and there are reasons for that – but not the government’s game playing on the exemptions or the congestion of the system. It, the revelation, the big truth, simply isn’t there, under any circumstances. The Iraq Inquiry is a memorial to the same expectations, which will not materialise. When Tony Blair appears next Friday, the second coming – or is it the third ? – will not take place. Post modernism is right about that.

Data protection, on the other hand, has been subverted by the culture of transparency and democratic access, largely because there is nothing left inside to be kept private any longer, or not much. Why, then, are people still concerned about their personal data? What has happened, I think, is that the digital world now provides a complete environment for personal data quite independent of any privacy concerns, or at least concerns based on claims about the private self.

Personal data has a financial value, it can be physically lost, it can be thought of as social capital, it can amount to a proxy self in a digital society, and it can be all of these things with consequent legitimate concerns without it having much to do with the private self.

Which means we should catch up culturally, and not use privacy talk to discuss those concerns.

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