Opening a Can of Data

Would you be happy for the world to know your salary details?  Many of us in the UK would baulk at the merest thought of the idea while in other countries revealing this data is the norm.  What is it that makes attitudes so different and how can anyone truly judge what’s the right line to be drawn between privacy and transparency?  Should it be up to governments and companies to dictate or are we in the UK sliding towards a culture where this information is no longer deemed to be private – and what could be the implications?

The UK government has been forging strongly ahead with its transparency and Open Data policies.  Current transparency guidelines state that the release of its data is to bring data into the open so that everyone can see whether it is delivering good value for money.  Back in 2010 the government for the first time released data of civil servants earning more than £150,000/annum.  At the time 24 of the 300 civil servants named requested that their identities not be released but as the Local Government Chronicle reported this was quashed.  Later that same year civil servants earning over £82,900 were named – yet plans to name individual civil servants earning more than £58,000 were scrapped after concerns were raised about privacy.  As the BBC noted at the time:

“Writing for the ConservativeHome website, Francis Maude said: “After careful consultation with officials across Whitehall, we concluded that the balance between transparency and privacy would best be struck by not releasing this personal information.”

Why was it seen as correct that the line between transparency and privacy be drawn at this level?

Compare this Norway where anyone can go to the mainstream newspaper Aftenposten’s website and check out the tax list which reveals a large proportion of the country’s tax payers’ details including their annual income, tax paid, value of investments and date of birth. For those in the UK this would seem a gross intrusion into privates lives so why have Norwegians accepted this – or perhaps more to the point, did they ever have any option?

It may well have all begun with the deeply rooted Norwegian culture which prescribes egalitarianism, collectivism and conformity as values to be protected and practiced by its citizens – Janteloven (Jante Law).  Although unwritten it is a set of principles which the poet Aksel Sandemose laid out in words in 1933:

  1. Don’t think you’re anything special.
  2. Don’t think you’re as much as us.
  3. Don’t think you’re wiser than us.
  4. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.
  5. Don’t think you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think you are more than us.
  7. Don’t think you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think anyone cares about you.
  10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.

Yet there is an 11th rule of Jante Law which brings some perspective:

11.  Don’t think there’s anything we don’t know about you.

It’s against this backdrop that tax return data has been available for the public to view since 1863 – but in 2008 the authorities made a list available to the media enabling instant online access to all via a searchable database. Channel 4 noted reactions to this:

“Jan Omdahl, from the tabloid Dagbladet, wrote at the time: “Isn’t this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency and social equality as ideals?” However a poll carried out in 2007 found most of his countrymen disagreed: just 32% thought the list should be published, while 46% were opposed.”

Yet as the BBC noted it was Dagbladet who then went on to offer their readers the chance to automatically check and compare the income of their Facebook friends and to offer the service as an iPhone application – leaving Trine Skei Grane of the green party Venstre to comment how:

“We took part in opening up the system, but now the principle of openness is totally out of proportion” 

Here we return to the 11th Jante Law, from the Foreigner  “Being able to get information about everyone’s economic situation is an important historical principle in Norway, designed to ensure all contributed to society as they should – with the possibility of being “reported” if not”.

In another twist in the tail of openness it is well known that Scandinavia, with its deep roots of transparency, collaboration and egalitarianism, has seen the creation of many thriving open source projects including Linux, Skype and Joost.  Yet while open source is valued highly, the recent Norwegian Ministry of Finance’s suggestion that it may open source cash registers ‘to prevent tax fraud’ has not gone down so well.

So could we see the UK eventually go the same way or will we manage to walk the tight rope between privacy and transparency? It’s not just the government though who are intent on pushing the boundaries.  There are those who believe that businesses thrive more in an environment of transparency, flattened hierarchies and openness of  information – but to make this happen does require a serious cultural shift.  Just in the last year I have watched the debate hotting up around whether businesses would operate better with open salary policies with those ahead of the game like Nixon McInnes in Brighton leading by example, a fly on the wall documentary about a company which opened up it’s salaries on TV and even, I noticed last week, the London Metro running an article entitled ‘Share the wealth: Do you want your work colleagues to know your salary?’  In my mind once these questions are being raised in the mainstream media then it’s often the time to start taking the idea seriously as something which might just happen…

Cultures do adapt and certainly we have adopted the transparency of the internet rapidly and with relative ease – where would many of us be without Facebook?  But that adoption happened so quickly it did not give many of us time to weigh up where we stood on the privacy / transparency tight rope or its implications. Hopefully though as we move further down the transparency path we’ll have time to reflect before reaching norwegian levels because once a can has been opened the lid is usually very difficult to put back. Worth bearing in mind perhaps…

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About Janet

Hello these are words about myself
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