"Transparency Is Not Enough."

danah boyd
Gov2.0 Expo
May 26, 2010

[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk. A video of what I actually said is on YouTube.]

Citation: boyd, danah. 2010. "Transparency Is Not Enough." Gov2.0 Expo. Washington DC, May 26.


Transparency is one of the hottest topics that comes to mind when we think of Gov2.0. And for good reason - transparency is critically important. Many of us believe in transparency because we want the government to make information available to citizens because it's only fair and just. Many of us believe that the more information we have, the more informed our decisions and citizenry can be. And we rightfully believe that the government often keeps public information away from citizens to assert power. Those who are fighting for transparency are fighting the good fight. So let me begin by thanking them and thanking all of you who are working hard to help them make transparency a reality.

With this said, I want to say something a bit more controversial: transparency is not enough. Transparency alone won't get us where we want to be and if we don't think about the entire ecology, we may shoot ourselves in the feet.

The issues with transparency are similar to the issues with Internet access and the digital divide. In focusing on the first step - transparency or access - it's easy to forget the bigger picture. Internet access does not automagically created an informed citizenry. Likewise, transparent data doesn't make an informed citizenry. Transparency is only the first step. And when we treat transparency as an ends in itself, we can create all sorts of unintended consequences. For this reason, I think that we need to critically think through not just transparency, but the information landscape around transparency.


Let me begin with a concrete example of where the visibility of data can cause all sorts of unexpected complications. I want to talk about "Megan's Law," a set of laws put in place to create transparency of information concerning sexual offenders.

In 1994, a 7-year old girl named Megan Kanka was raped and murdered in New Jersey by a child molester in her neighborhood. In 1996, the U.S. Congress amended the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act, requiring every state to develop procedures to notify the public when a sex offender is released into their community. The related laws are regularly referred to as "Megan's Law." As a result, most states have processes in place where sex offenders are required to register themselves, their location, and their employer and notify officials whenever a change is made. Most states focus on those convicted of crimes against children, but some states have broader registries.

Lists of registered sex offenders are made publicly available for the good of the community. Now, these lists were available before the internet was popular, but the internet makes it easier to see if a registered sex offender lives in your neighborhood. And thanks to mashups, countless tools are out there to map and visualize where registered sex offenders live and work.

Most people genuinely believe that lists of registered sex offenders are good for society. Arguably, I should too. Shortly before I was born, a distant cousin of mine was raped and murdered by her neighbor when she was the same age as Megan. And I've spent my life fighting to stop violence against women and girls. I want people who are a risk to children to be off our streets. I have no tolerance for people who abuse children. But this doesn't mean that I like the registered sex offender list. I don't like it because people don't understand who's on it or why and the data is regularly misinterpreted in what I believe are deeply problematic ways that fundamentally hurt people.

In August, the Economist ran a series of articles on the "Unjust and ineffective" nature of American sex laws. They began the expose with the story of Wendy Whitaker who was arrested in 1996 at the age of 17 for having oral sex with a classmate three weeks shy of his 16th birthday. She was convicted of sodomy against a minor, ended up in jail for a year and is now listed on the registry. "She sees people whispering, and parents pulling their children indoors when she walks by." Not only did she have to pay the price for her teenage indiscretions by going to jail, but she's forced to deal with them day-in and day-out for the rest of her life. Because of the registry. I wish that I could say that Wendy's story was rare, but I hear stories like this over and over again. People's lives ruined because of the registry.

Teen Registered Sex OffenderThe sex offender registry currently contains over 700,000 people who are on that list for a whole variety of different crimes. Some of them may indeed be a risk to a community; many of them are not. There are plenty of people who are put on that registry when they themselves are teenagers. This includes teens who are convicted of statutory rape for having sex with their significant others, much to the horror of their significant others' parents. Increasingly, this includes teenagers who are convicted of child pornography crimes for taking photos of themselves naked or sharing photos with their significant others or possessing photos shared by others. Not only are these teenagers not a risk to society; they are the victims of society's injustice. And keep in mind that these could be your kids, especially when you consider that 15% of teenagers have received an image that could be construed to be child pornography.

The problem with the registry is not its intention. Of course we want to give people the tools to protect their children. The problem is also not simply one of transparency. In fact, the transparency of these lists allows us to call into question how our laws are enforced. The problems that stem from the registry stem from the fact that people misinterpret what the data means. When the list of registered sex offenders is made available out of context, it's easy for people to misinterpret what they see. And boy do they ever. In most of your minds, a registered sex offender is automatically Evil Incarnate. So when someone has that Scarlett Letter attached to their chests, they are immediately judged without the circumstances and situation being understood. Transparency may allow us to see who's registered, but for this information to be used effectively, it needs to be communicated in context. In short, we need people to not just have access to the data, but have access to the context surrounding the data.


We all love data but we're dreadful at interpreting it. Ironically, we even love books like "Freakonomics" and "Blink" that tell us we're terrible at interpreting data. But even though over 6 million copies of those books were sold, we still generate moral panics instinctively, even when data is available to contradict our instincts. It's a whole lot easier to use information to generate fear than to assuage it.

Unfortunately, what I've learned in watching issues around sex crimes against minors is that politicians do even more to generate fear than the public at large. Politicians are not in the business of helping us understand data; they're in the business of helping assuage our fears, even when our fears aren't based on anything real. It drives me crazy when they're happy to mis-use data if it helps them tell their story. Or when they make data available to us only when it can be used to their advantage. That's a huge problem.

Consider the statistic from 2006 that 1 in 7 minors are sexually solicited online. This statistic flew around the press and was employed by Attorneys General across the U.S. to argue that the Internet is dangerous for children. This statistic was from a highly reputable source - the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The problem is not the statistic; it is accurate. It's what it implies without further clarification. Most people interpret this statistic as suggesting that 1 in 7 minors are sexually solicited by older sketchy adults seeking to meet minors offline for sex. Yet, over 90% of sexual solicitations are from other minors or young adults and 69% of solicitations involve no attempt at offline contact. Finally, the researchers used the term solicitation to refer to any communication of a sexual nature, including sexual harassment and flirtation.

As a co-director of the Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force, I made the mistake of assuming that everyone would appreciate having the research into these issues synthesized for public consumption. Andrew Schrock and I set about to collect and interpret over 400 studies that examined issues related to online safety and we were pleasantly surprised to find consistencies across data collected through different sampling mechanisms, across different populations, and using different analytic approaches. We proudly produced a Literature Review of all of this material in an effort to help the press and politicians understand the landscape. I was not prepared for what followed: an angry phone call from a state attorney general who told us that we needed to "go find different data." When we stood our ground, confident in the data, we were lambasted in the press as fools. All because the research findings didn't match the fears that he was seeking to address.

Information is power. This is precisely why we want to get information into the hands of more people. But as we do, we need to account for a new twist in all of this: Spinning the interpretation of the information is even more powerful. And the more that we make information available, the more that those in power twist it to tell their story. When everyone has information, information is no longer nearly as powerful as the ability to control its narrative. So as we challenge the government to make data available, we must also challenge them to do it in a way that doesn't allow them to spin the story in ways that further alienate people.

Information is always interpreted. For this reason, transparency of data is not enough. Spreading information wildly so that people can misinterpret it wildly will not let us achieve our goals. We must be cautious to think through not just the transparency of information, but the interpretation of information.


Access alone will not empower people. Information alone will not empower people. Worse: it can be manipulated to actually disempower people, especially when it's used as a tool of fear. Or when we make available data that encourages divisions in our society. Data like the sex offender registry is meant to do both. It’s meant to make people afraid and hate-ful. Why is it that this kind of data is made available but data that helps people operate as good citizens is not? That’s a huge problem.

Likewise, information is never neutral. Neutrality is another one of those lovely ideals. But Wikipedia entries are not neutral nor is the algorithm that produces Google News. Nor for that matter is any news anchor, regardless of whether or not they're "fair and balanced." Even when they tried their darndest to not reveal their biases, news anchors give it away in the language that they use and the inadvertent facial expressions that they give off. Furthermore, neutrality isn't reached through conflicting viewpoints being expressed. Bias doesn't get cancelled out. Worse: when people are exposed to conflicting viewpoints through a debate, they're encouraged to choose sides rather than than to see the issue through different vantage points. Every act of communication is biased and learning how to read bias is a critical skill.

It's easy to misinterpret what I'm saying so let me make myself clear. Transparency is important, but it's not enough to achieve the goals that we attribute to the reasons behind wanting to fight for transparency. So if you're fighting for transparency, you need to understand these three things:

1) Information is power, but interpretation is more powerful
2) Data taken out of context can have unintended consequences
3) Transparency alone is not the great equalizer

The #1 goal of transparency is to empower people, to give them an opportunity to be informed as citizens, to allow them to be a check to power. But when those in power release data in a way that allows them to maintain power, we've got a huge problem. The technologies that we love are making it easier to make information available, but our challenge goes beyond releasing data from its chains. We must also help people develop the skills to interpret data. This isn't as easy as it sounds. There's a reason why people are perceived of as experts - it's often because they know how to interpret information. Information is most useful to people when they have the skills to interpret it. This requires education. Information's power comes from your ability to assert your interpretation of it over others' interpretation. This requires confidence and a strong structural position. Because of this, making information available alone is not the great democratizer. It must be coupled with enabling people to have the skills to interpret it.

As a member of the Knight Commission, I fought vigorously for making information available to people and I strongly stand behind our first recommendation that we must maximize the availability of relevant and credible information. Information is essential to the functioning of a democracy. But I also stand by our second recommendation: we must enhance the information capacity of individuals. Simply making information available isn't the solution. We need to help people develop the skills to interpret the information that they have access to in the context in which it is produced. We must also build the structures necessary to handle misinterpretations and to counter wide-spread myth-making.

To capitalize on transparency, we need information literacy. This means media literacy and digital literacy too. Information literacy includes the skills necessary to interpret information in a context. Information literacy isn't something that people develop just because information is available. So assuming that they will emerge once we unlock information is naive. Furthermore, skills aren't distributed randomly across the population. Eszter Hargittai has consistently shown that those who are most privileged in our society are more likely to have information literacy skills. What this means is that those who are most privileged are more equipped to make sense of and use the information that they have access to. If you want information access because you want a better informed citizenry and a fairer society, you must start embracing the importance of information literacy and the need to provide infrastructure to help people build these skills. Providing broadband access is wonderful, but without the skills to make sense of what the Internet provides, access does nothing. The same is true for information transparency. And we can't wait until we get transparency to start creating a citizenry who has the skills to interpret the data that will be made available.

When we rally for information transparency, we're arguing that those who are currently in power cannot use their power unfairly to keep people in the dark. That message is critical. But I worry about how data can be released in a way that is manipulative. And I worry that the information that government is most willing to give to the public is that which causes harm. Or that the release of data will allow for massive misinterpretation when spun in the wrong way. We need to work towards a system that isn't just about releasing data, but putting it into a public context. And we need to think of these things as we work to make data transparent.

This is a country built on a mantra that "all [people] are created equal." Those who are working towards transparency are doing so with this mission in mind. We desperately need an informed citizenry. But getting there is two pronged. We need information transparency and we also need to help people develop the skills to leverage that information to their advantage. And to help society writ large.

The Internet radically increases the opportunities for information to be made available which is why we're all here celebrating Gov2.0. But the Internet does not magically give people the skills they need to interpret the information they see. That's why I need you. I need you to fight for information literacy alongside information transparency. Both are essential to creating an informed citizenry.

Thank you!


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