Democracy and the Information Order I

Consider Adam Liptak’s front page article in the Times today. It’s about a website that publishes information about people who agree to be witnesses for the government. The information, it seems, is all gleaned from public documents so there’s no big violation of privacy type question here, but it does bring up lots of questions and not just the obvious ones.

On the one side, you have prosecutors pointing out that this might massively de-incentivize (sic) truth-telling. Seen more economically, we might speculate that it will just make it a lot more expensive (since part of the impetus for the website seems to be focusing on the “deals” that are offered for information).

So, it’s interesting to the sociologist of information in that it makes us think about the way that transactions in (presumably) the truth are valued and how secrecy about who is doing the truth telling and why affects the “price,” not to mention the perceived veracity.

If you think only about whistle-blowing and organized crime prosecutions, it’s easy to lean in the direction advocated by some judicial policy makers: information about informants and deals should perhaps be sealed or in some way less accessible to the general public.

But if you think for a moment about the democratic functions of the legal system, especially the role they have in fostering openness in the information order, you might not be so sure about that.

If you go further and think about other places and other times, as depicted, for example, in the recent film ” The Life of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen“), then the idea of “outing” informants might seem like even less of a good idea.

We are reminded, in any case, that new technologies change the meaning of the phrase “it is known that….”

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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