Being open about being open.

As I have mentioned before I am a dues paying member of the “Open Rights Group”. I cannot have been happier with how my “investment” has made a difference and continues to make a difference in educating decision makers.

I was very disappointed then to have joined the Mailing list for the ORG just as the discussion about “should the archives be open ?” was kicking off. Now colour me confused but if I join a group devoted to encouraging transparent decision making processes and open formats then I might have a reasonable expectation that the maillist and conversations that I have will also be available to the public without a barrier or “subscription”.

There are various concerns expressed about making the list open , the least of which is Spam Bots and farmers. Lets be honest about Spam bots and farmers; that Horse has long since galloped off and the gates have long stopped swinging. The list isnt really private , anyone can sign up and read the archives so theres no “actual” privacy. The most frustrating of comments concerns the idea that the list will have “better quality discussions if it remains private”. Really ? Well I suppose the same argument could be made that better software will be developed if it remains closed.

There are some great discussions on the list but I cant help but have a nagging doubt that this smacks of either elitism or pedantry. I would have written a response via email but I wanted instead to make my comments public and in a forum that allows the ORG and its members in turn to respond in public.

Thanks for reading.

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5 Comments on “Being open about being open.

  1. As a member of ORG and as another list subscriber, I’ve been feeling similarly disappointed by the discussion. I agree that a group which champions transparency and open rights shouldn’t be obscured by unnecessary barriers to observation and participation.

    That being said, opening up the existing archives without the consent of the authors of those posts doesn’t seem particularly fair. I think that it’s important that the ORG tries its best to open as much of the list archives to the public as it can, but we shouldn’t disrespect the wishes of those who don’t want their emails more widely published.

    I also worry that opening the list in this manner would mean the list losing some of its contributors, which in my opinion would be quite a shame. Perhaps, looking foward, the ORG could consider some kind of mechanism not unlike the X-NoArchive header for those posters who wish to opt out?

  2. In fairness to ORG, however, what they have actually done here is ask their members what should be done about the status of a list which has always been private. Given that a large part of the group’s remit is online-privacy, this seems only appropriate. As a number of posters have mentioned, it would be hypocritical to complain about organisations changing their privacy Ts and Cs retrospectively and then have ORG do the same thing themselves.

    I’ve been following the debate also and I’ve only counted two messages out of twenty nine claiming that the quality of debate will fall if the list becomes public. Furthermore, the reason given was not through any tech-snobbery but rather that posters may watch what they say more, which could affect the quality of debate.

  3. It’s much more complex than you’re presenting here. The list is “open” in a very real sense, in that anyone can subscribe and view the archives. What this does is provide a social indicator of a requirement of reciprocality – if you want to look through our email discussions you must provide a valid email address in turn. Of course this is only a social indicator, not a technologically forced requirement since it’s easy enough to use a one-time-only email address to register. But such social indicators are useful.

    We currently maintain one list which serves a variety of purposes, including but not limited to:

    – discussion of relevant issues
    – posting of pointers to external reports
    – discussion of tactics for lobbying
    – discussion of administrivia about the list, meetings, social get togethers etc.
    – discussion of irrelevant (and occasionally irreverent) issues

    The outcome of such a list is a good community-building effect. Making it completely open might well inhibit some of these things from taking place on the list (and some threads veer between different elements, or include multiple elements in one post).

    Now, as I’ve posted, I have no problem with the list archives being completely open, but I’m in a somewhat privileged position begin an academic – I have academic freedom in my work life such that not only am I able to state my opinion about such things without fear of negative effects on my career, it’s actually part of my job description. However, for others it might have negative consequences if some of their opinions were to appear on a standard web search under their name. Again, this is principally a socially indicated and not technologically enforced restriction since there’s nothing technical to stop any member of the list automatically archiving it somewhere open themselves. But so far it seems to work.

    In addition, we don’t necessarily want internal discussions on the best strategy for lobbying to be completely open – our opponents’ strategy sessions on lobbying take place behind closed doors.

    Finally, if you really wanted an open debate on this with other members of the list, maybe you should have posted a URL to the list yourself instead of waiting for another list member to do it for you. Putting it on your blog but not mentioning it on the list seems strange given your claim to want an open discussion.

    (Posted here and mailed to the list.)

    Dr Andrew A. Adams

  4. SNIP
    “The most frustrating of comments concerns the idea that the list will have “better quality discussions if it remains private”. Really ? Well I suppose the same argument could be made that better software will be developed if it remains closed.”

    Comparing list discussions or corporate governance structures to software can be a bit misleading. I don’t think anyone can disagree with the idea that (at least some) people are much more frank and speak much more freely when they speak to a smaller and more intimate group of people.

    I see three questions in relation to this.

    Are people on the list really being more frank and speaking more freely because of the existing list settings?

    Is it “better” to have people be more frank and to speak their mind more (if the existing settings encourage this) in terms of the ORG list and ORG governance?


    Are people under a delusion of the level of privacy of the list?

    Frankly, sometimes discussions or the governance of an organisation do work better with a closed model. Being “open” is not a priori always a benefit.