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How “Transparent” is the UK Government?

23 · JAN ·2015

The word ‘transparency’ is becoming, ironically, more convoluted these days as governments across the world are addressing the balance between Internet privacy and security. However, it’s not just users’ information that may have more transparency in the future but also that of corporations and governments themselves. Furthermore, while influential politicians across the world are calling on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and social networking sites to be more transparent with their users’ data, users are campaigning for governments, ISPs and websites to be more transparent when it comes to what information they store.

This is why some people may find it surprising that is has recently been claimed that the UK government is the “most transparent” in the world. According to research conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation which was founded by no other than the creator of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself, the UK ranked number one when it came to government data being available for analysing. Discussing the research, Sir Tim said: "There are a lot of countries that have promised to put this basic data out there, really valuable information to cement trust between the government and citizens, but a lot of them haven't followed up.

"Despite coming top of the rankings, the UK has a long way to go. The release of map data is something where the UK has lagged behind, and you'd think postcodes would be part of the open structure of the UK, but they're not. The Post Office holds them as being a proprietary format. So, ironically, just a list of places in the UK is not available openly, for free, on the web."

However, there are those that believe the UK government is not as transparent as even Sir Tim claims, with Meg Hillier, a Labour MP who sits on the Parliament's Digital Democracy Commission, saying: "There's actually a big difference between dumping data that's not easily understandable and actually having open data that clever people can use to help you and me find out the information they want about the subject they want. One of the things that MPs are trying to get government to do is to make sure data is released in usable formats. Just dumping data is not the answer, it ticks a box but it doesn't do the job."

Number two on the Wide Web Foundation’s list is the USA, which for many may be unsurprising given President Obama’s stance on net neutrality. However, over the past week Prime Minister David Cameron has been in talks with President Obama in order to convince him that there should be stricter laws surrounding encryption. Mr Cameron claims that ISPs should have more access to data – including data that is currently encrypted – in order to help prevent terrorist attacks both here and in the US.

A government source said: “The prime minister’s objective here is to get the US companies to cooperate with us more, to make sure that our intelligence agencies get the information they need to keep us safe. That will be his approach in the discussion with President Obama – how can we work together to get them to cooperate more, what is the best approach to encourage them to do more.”

However, there are those that are claiming introducing harsher encryption laws will fail to prevent hackers from sending messages secretly online and that in fact they could harm those that both governments are trying to protect. Furthermore, the proposal could be in direct conflict with Obama’s policy of making superfast broadband available to all a priority, instead of restricting those who can access the Internet.

Discussing the issue, Sam Coleman, Fluidata’s Business Sales Manager, Finance and Banking, said: “I believe ISPs & government agencies are currently not given enough power to delete/remove harmful posts & accounts that can lead to radicalisation, cyber terrorism etc. The process is to request this from corporations such as Facebook & Twitter, usually by raising a request and building a legal case at the cost of the taxpayer. If they could remove it themselves then they would have the power to help protect the country as well as other users. Further encryption or less encryption is not the issue here, it’s a question of who has the power to take action?”

Even though the Wide Web Foundation believes that the UK government is one of the most transparent in the world, if their plans go ahead the Internet may become a more opaque world for all users. As of now, the US and the UK look as though they have a number of subjects to discuss, however in the future it is likely that both will need to come clean on their plans for Internet privacy.

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Posted by Sanita Karra