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section: II Privacy, Access, Ethics, and Theory

section II: Privacy, Access, Ethics, and Theory

Internet technology has the potential to bring about democratic transparency in the way government conducts its business. Transparency in turn is thought to promote governmental responsiveness, which in turn is thought to increase public demand for yet more online access in a self-reinforcing cycle. At the same time, it is believed that public agencies that fail to embrace online openness will become seen as inefficient, unresponsive, and unworthy of being rewarded in competition for shrinking public-sector budgets. That is, the argument is made that the Internet will promote transparency, and transparency will create a revolution in governmental efficiency and responsiveness.

Even a transparent government, however, must support individual privacy rights. As noted in a 2006 report from the Security and Privacy Committee of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), privacy is a particularly daunting challenge for government because citizens expect openness, yet at the same time, government must foster citizen trust by ensuring the privacy of information about individual citizens. Privacy issues are pervasive, arising in arenas ranging from e-government services to IT governance to enterprise architecture.

Privacy is an issue because people have good reason to believe that data collected on them for one purpose may be appropriated and used for altogether different purposes than the original ones about which they were informed (if at all) at the time data were collected. Some 49 million Americans (22%) reported in 2006, based on a national Harris poll, that they had been informed that their personal information had been lost, stolen, or compromised in the past 3 years. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse reported that up to 2006, some 100 million Americans have had their personal information compromised—over one third of the United States. Some of the worst instances of compromise of personal data have occurred in the governmental sector. Beyond this there is the routine sharing of data with other government agencies without permission from the citizen who volunteered personal data, in violation of long-standing fair data-use principles.

In theoretical terms, some seeking to understand these issues have turned to structuration theory, which is a variant of institutional theory growing out of the work of Anthony Giddens. Giddens held that individual actions both shape and are constrained by social structures. This two-way cause-effect relationship Giddens called "the duality of structure." In studying e-democracy, structuration theory opposes both the technological determinist view that a technological imperative will override human will, and the opposite human design view that information technology is infinitely malleable to human intentions. Rather, it predicts that human behavior will shape information technology, but that technology will reshape human behavior as well. This prediction is very similar to that made with regard to information technology by institutional theorists such as Fountain's theory of technology enactment. Existing social structures combine with the spirit of technology to generate the structural potential of a given technology or innovation. In matters of access, privacy, and ethics, technology does not preclude governments doing the right thing, nor does it make ethical outcomes inevitable, for better or for worse.

G. David Garson, September 2007


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