FW: Lessig's cautionary note on "radical transparency" and Sunlight Labs response

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Patrice McDermott

Oct 16, 2009, 4:42:28 PM10/16/09
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Patrice McDermott


From: Terry Francke [mailto:te...@CALAWARE.ORG]
Sent: Thursday, October 15, 2009 4:27 PM
Subject: Re: Lessig's cautionary note on "radical transparency" and Sunlight Labs response


Talk about the risks of attenuated attention span: Lessig's headline and subhead will be the longest remembered part of his essay, and they are both profoundly misleading.


He is not "Against Transparency."  He is against accountability. After all the underbrush is cleared away, what really bothers him is that quantitative linkages between the political contributions a politician gets and the political decisions he/she makes will be read with a dirty mind.  The politician may be unfairly placed on the defensive by the disclosure that after getting $10,000 from Acme Dynamite Corp., he/she voted against a bill burdening the sale of high explosives.  True, post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy in rhetorical discourse, and everyone knows that babies are not caused by weddings—even when they succeed them. But the equally common sense reaction to Lessig's concern is, roughly: Boo hoo.  If life itself is unfair, gaining the reputation for being on the take as the result of clearer and clearer lines drawn between one's campaign income and one's voting output is one of the decidedly milder manifestations of unfairness. As usual, the remedy for potentially misleading information is—more information.  The recipient of Acme's 20 grand can explain that everyone in Congress, or all Democrats, or whatever incidental collective, also got 20 grand; or that he or she voted against Acme's interests five times before, after getting 20 grand each time; or by pointing out any other offsetting contextual facts (if there are any).  The argument that information needs to be suppressed because the public might misunderstand it, or someone might manipulate it to mischievous effect, is as old as bureaucracy, and has never won the day, although recently advanced by the Justice Department.


Moreover, the piece is not, as the subhead says, about the "perils of openness in government." The subject of his concern is not openness in government; it is openness in politics, a very different thing. For example, here in California openness in government was a guarantee that lawmakers were willing to provide with enactment of the California Public Records Act in 1968, which exempted the legislature; it took the people, through the initiative process, to enact the Political Reform Act (with its robust disclosure provisions affecting politicians as such) in 1974.  And while it was the legislature that put government openness on the ballot for transformation into a constitutional right with Proposition 59 in 2004, again the legislature exempted itself entirely from that access right. And of course the Congress has always exempted itself from FOIA, and the current majority, despite its coinage of the slogan, seems no more zealous for "open and honest government" under the Capitol dome than the previous. The only explanation for Lessig's fixation with the potential unfairness of political income/output linkages that I can see is that it provides a bridge to advocacy for his own preferred solution to the influence of big money in politics.  We may, as it happens, find that proposal appealing, but not at the expense of open government principles or their accelerating realization in, as he would say, code.


On Oct 15, 2009, at 10:53 AM, Kimo Crossman wrote:


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Gabriela Schneider <gschn...@sunlightfoundation.com>
Date: Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 10:21 AM
Subject: [sunlightlabs] Re: Lessig's cautionary note on "transparency"
To: sunlig...@googlegroups.com

Thanks, Eric. FYI, Sunlight's co-founders also responded on the New Republic:


On Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 12:13 PM, Eric C. Kansa <eka...@ischool.berkeley.edu> wrote:

This should be of interest to this discussion list:

Larry Lessig ("free culture" and Creative Commons fame) wrote a pretty
provocative piece in the New Republic:


Malamud responded here:


Interesting discussions, worth further exploration.

Eric C. Kansa, PhD.
Executive Director
Information and Service Design Program
Adjunct Professor
UC Berkeley, School of Information
Office: (510) 643-4757
Mobile: (415) 425-7380
Fax: (510) 642-5814


Gabriela Schneider
Communications Director
Sunlight Foundation
1818 N Street, NW Suite 410
WDC 20036
p: 202/742-1520 x 236
c: 202/746-0439




Brian Hamon

Oct 16, 2009, 6:58:25 PM10/16/09
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My reading of Lessig's article leads me to a different conclusion: a persuasive endorsement of the Fair Elections Now Act (HR1826).

Steve Toub

Oct 16, 2009, 9:18:14 PM10/16/09
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Interestingly enough, advocating for the Fair Elections Now Act is a major focus of Change Congress, an organization that Lessig co-founded:

Call me someone who's an advocate for "naked transparency" but it was odd to me that neither the text of the piece, nor the line that gives Lessig's affiliations, mentioned Change Congress or Lessig's role there.


Speaking for myself, not my employer: MAPLight.org

Matt Cooperrider

Oct 17, 2009, 3:03:57 PM10/17/09
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I agree, the whole thing seemed like a roundabout argument for Change
Congress's mission. An attempt to get the transparency community more
aligned with that goal. Not necessarily a bad objective, but not a
very transparent approach.
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