Nov 27, 2011
An interesting piece appeared on the Guardian data blog on Friday. It describes a wealth of new data being released relating to court and conviction information.
The database shows sentencing in 322 magistrates and crown courts in England and Wales. Defendants’ names are excluded but details such as age, ethnicity, type of offence and sentence are not. Any computer user can analyse aspects such as how many white people were sent to jail for driving offences.
All good stuff. There’s definitely value to be gained from this type of analysis. It’s being released as a database (hopefully with a commitment to regular ongoing publication), and it brings consistency to often haphazard arrangements for making data available. These are positive moves, and should be welcomed.
Transparency campaigner William Perrin, who advises the Ministry of Justice on opening up its data, says the release is a big step: “Publishing the details of each sentence handed down in each court is a great leap forward for transparency in the UK, for which MoJ should be warmly praised. Courts have to be accountable to the local populations they serve.” But he, like some campaigners, believes the MoJ should go further, releasing the names of defendants. “The data published is anonymised, flying in the face of hundreds of years of tradition of open courts and public justice.
“The MoJ need to have an open and public debate about the conflict between the central role in our society of open public courts where you can hear the name and details of offenders read out in public and crude misapplication of data protection.”
My concern lies with the consequences of releasing the names of individuals, as proposed here, in a completely accessible and reusable way.
William draws a parallel between the act of reading out names in public court and publishing them on the Internet. (Disclosure: William and I both sit on the Transparency Sector Panel in MoJ.)
Were it a simple parallel, with the same consequences, I’d be pretty comfortable with the principle of release, too. But I see one very big difference: raw content on the Internet is (almost always) indexed by search engines. And search engines have very, very long memories. The (only) two things that the Internet has fundamentally changed are the ease with which information can be found, and the duration and extent over which it persists–as I’ve banged on about on this blog before.
So, this proposal (if taken at face value) would lead to a couple of consequences which might not be wholly desirable: firstly, a name would quite feasibly, if entered into a search engine, throw up information about an offence and the consequent sentencing for an indefinite time. What implications does that have for rehabilitation of offenders? If your conviction has been spent, and your potential employer does a quick check and finds that the only thing you’ve ever been noted for on the Internet is… Well, would that feel just to you?
Ah, I hear you say–but look at court reporting now: those journalists that do manage to get intelligible information out of a clerk so they can write their pieces accurately end up with their content being indexed (paywalls permitting), and the Google ghosts will be there to do their haunting anyway. Yes. They will. But this is an issue of scale and ease, not principle. Journalists today, even those with perfect information, exercise some choice over what they choose to print. Maybe this is just because of space constraints, maybe there are other factors at play. But the “release everything for reuse” stance would dramatically increase this scale of publication.
You may say that this is a good thing: along similar lines as “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, this extra hangover from a criminal’s downfall may be a very positive thing for society. Another deterrent to criminality, maybe? I don’t know about that, but I do know that we then face a reappraisal about what we mean by rehabilitation as a direct consequence of data release.
And, as William says, that needs proper public debate.
But it’s not just a matter of scale. We find, when public data is released en masse, that new business opportunities spring up. Imagine the entrepreneur who gathers all data on convictions and charges for their own employee check service. They might adhere to principles of time limitation on their data. They might not. They might mash-up this data set with other information. They might not. They might put profit before principle.
We attempt to control such reuse of information with regulation, but on the Internet, it gets very much harder to make this stick in practice. Again, we risk changing the landscape of what it means to be convicted, by releasing data like this.
I’m fascinated by how even something like the current Data Protection Act relates to the indexing of personal information within search engines. Surely, almost by definition, the end purpose of such indexing cannot be known, and therefore Principle 2 (Personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes, and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes–source: ICO) must surely be creaking already?
So, I’m not so keen on making it indexable. Can this be avoided? Is there a middle ground which acknowledges the shambles that is the current practice in courts–with some prepared to supply information in machine-readable format, others insisting on hand-written notes being passed, and some seemingly actively obstructive in providing information?
I think there might be. There are some “government” datasets which although they could be released for reuse, aren’t. For fairly good reasons. The database of car registrations, for example. I suspect we’d consider if a bad thing if a road rage incident could be easily followed up with some bricks through windows on the basis of typing in the offending registration plate when you got home.
Similarly, we have a curious set of “frictions” in place to allow us to have an electoral roll which is at the same time both “publicly viewable” (provided you go to a library) and searchable online only if you pay up a good chunk of cash. A big hmmm from me to that latter part, by the way, but you can read much more on electoral roll issues here.
And the way that this data is structured is also important: so that we can’t, for example, easily go online, type in an address down the road, get a full list of occupants’ names and pop round there with all sorts of social engineering stories designed to make trouble/extract money/dig for further info/groom/be very creepy. Again, I’d suggest we do this for good reasons, and we know how to build machinery to keep this equilibrium in our society.
We may solve the problem through choosing carefully the format for release, the means by which it’s referenced, and even to whom it’s released. Yes, I know, those wretched privileged accessors again (just like the Police, DVLA, local authorities, credit agencies etc etc etc.) Always a subject to warm the temperature in open data discussions!
But I’m not arguing for wilful obfuscation of this data, merely putting forward some of the alternative perspectives to “everything, raw, now”. We do need this public debate, and we need to be reasonably confident that we’re getting a net societal benefit from whatever action we take.
Let’s tread carefully here–just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
[I'd be commenting on the Guardian article if I could, but it doesn't seem to have comments open, so I've written this in response.]