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e-government: Amazon or Wikipedia?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Back when there was such a thing as e-commerce, before shopping online became invisible through its banality there was a related concept:e-government. The idea of e-government was that governments or more accurately the State could interact with citizens online. The benefits e-government champions hoped for were convenience for the citizen and reduction of costs for the state.

What happened to e-government? Tom Steinberg of My Society tells us that governments don’t have websites governments are websites. Tom writes “Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture? Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.”

Tom is quick to acknowledge that even in developed countries such as Britain many people don’t have online access, or that many encounter the State through physical infrastructure, prison for instance. (You can read and resist the rest of his post for yourself.) But if the State is not quite yet a website for many millions of people it seems at least likely that it soon will be. if so then what kind of website do we want it to be?

Think about the experience of buying something from an online retailer like Amazon.com. You run a search for a product and are presented instantly with an number of options. You can obtain a rapid price comparison. For each option you can can get information on the technical specifications, the marketers description of the product (even though the importance of this is fading), information on distribution, and most intriguing you can get information from other consumers. In turn you can not only contribute information to other consumers but also rate the utility of their comments. Once you purchase something you get an email confirming your order, and logistical information from the supplier.

While it is providing all this information to you the online retailer is also obtaining information about you. Its software can observe not only what you buy and what you pay but also what products you showed interest in, what items you searched for and how you rate what you purchase. It uses this information in the aggregate, but it also uses it to communicate more with you, to make recommendations based on your buying patterns, and customize your future interactions. Your interactions are information rich characterized by rapid collection and processing of information. The retailer probably doesn’t manufacture or even stock the goods that it sells you, instead it operates a complex feedback mechanism.

Now consider the best experiences you’ve had with government websites. In my best experiences of government websites the websites conveyed up to date, accurate, relevant information. Some enabled me to fill in forms online and a few even allowed me to submit the forms online, although these invariably involved the mule-stubborn user-hostile pdf. format, and a nerve racking submission process. And then think about the worst experiences of government websites you’ve had; out of date, irrelevant, clogged with high resolution pictures of the previous Minister, and often marred by hopelessly inaccurate information such as the laughable claim to copyright in official documents on the South African Reserve Bank website.

On even the best sites there is no feedback loop, there is no interaction with other citizens and there is no opportunity for the user to give the government information beyond the precise personal details needed to process a particular transaction. Even websites that provide slick services interfaces are not places where democracy is happening.

I would like better service interfaces or in some cases any service interface at all. But I don’t think that is enough. I’ve mentioned Amazon.com for a reason. The site doesn’t just enable me to find and buy a book quickly, it also enables a conversation with others about the book.  So even a website designed to maximise profits can support conversations, dare I say democratic conversations.

But do we want our experiences of  government to begin with the assumption that users are consumers or do we want them to begin with the premise that users are citizens? If we want the latter then we may question whether the design of government websites should set out to emulate Amazon or to emulate Wikipedia? I’ve pointed out some advantages that Amazon has the most governments websites lack. But I question whether that is as important as enabling citizens to pool knowledge and to hammer out agreements.

* Yes there are a few notable exceptions and you are welcome to link to them in the comments. But notice how exceptional they are.

law and new technology

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

“if Amazon’s computing cloud sees you looking at the New York Times home page, and it predicts, based on other user statistics, that you are somewhat likely to next click on some NY Times subpage link, then the Amazon servers will go ahead and download that next link, and cache it, in case you do click on it next, so that it can serve it up more quickly.”

What is your immediate response to that description of the “Silk” browser software on Amazon’s Kindle Fire pad? Are you amazed at the pace of technological change? Or are you curious about how the software works? Does it cause you to speculate about other applications?

Or do you immediately ask whether the caching is copyright infringement, or is it fair use, is it permitted by a safe harbour provision? That is the question Stephan Kinsella asked. Why would that respond spring to mind before others. Kinsella is concerned by the way in which laws, in this case intellectual property laws, rely on unexamined assumptions about technology. But when technology changes and courts try to apply laws to new technologies there are unexpected and often negative results. Many self described technology lawyers are familiar with the reflexive dynamic of intellectual property law and information and communications technology but its not just in intellectual property law and its not ICT’s for which this is true.

Who is responsible for damage caused by genetically modified organisms that reproduce in the wild? If one country, in an attempt to manage the climate change resulting from global warming, releases reflective sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere with the result that the climate changes for the worse for neighbouring countries is there a remedy in international law? Is is lawful to make part human part dolphin chimera’s?

But hasn’t the law always had to play catch up to technological change? From silks to motor cars and aircraft to video recorders* the law has responded sooner or later (but usually later) regulating use, assigning liability and (far too infrequently) assuring freedom. The law, especially common law, has responded through the incremental adaptation that characterises law. Occasionally law has been changed dramatically in response to a particular technological development usually through passing a comprehensive statute. Ironically these kinds of attempts at comprehensive change are often the most time bound and become anachronistic more quickly than the more flexible common law.

It may not be possible to quantify but it seems that something in the relationship of law and technology has changed. As I see it the pace, range and impact of technological change have each increased so much that law can no longer rely on ad hoc approach to technological change. Instead what is needed is a systematic approach that seeks to understand the relationships between law,  technology and society.

It isn’t simply a matter of trying to speed up the process of law making. Overhasty and under theorised law making can be even more disastrous than a delay between the appearance of problems and a legal response. The systematic response must enable scientists and technologists to share a common framework with policy makers so that conversations about new technologies draw on all the available disciplines and knowledge. Lawyers need conceptual tools that will help them take into account the unknown and the unknoweable, risk but also benefits. Jurisprudence must take account of technology as a phenomenon.

*For younger readers a “video recorder” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “n. an apparatus for making video recordings; spec. a form of tape recorder for recording television programmes from the broadcast signal.”