The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable.
Not necessarily. Many Internet enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic who were previously uninterested in policy debates have eagerly taken on the challenge of playing government watchdog, spending days and nights digitizing public data and uploading it into online databases. From Britain's TheyWorkforYou to Kenya's Mzalendo to various projects affiliated with the U.S.-based Sunlight Foundation such as MAPLight.org, a host of new independent websites has begun monitoring parliamentary activity, with some even offering comparisons between parliamentarians' voting records and campaign promises.
But have such efforts resulted in better or more honest politics? The results, so far, are quite mixed. Even the most idealistic geeks are beginning to understand that entrenched political and institutional pathologies -- not technological shortfalls -- are the greatest barriers to more open and participatory politics. Technology doesn't necessarily pry more information from closed regimes; rather, it allows more people access to information that is available. Governments still maintain great sway in determining what kinds of data to release. So far, even the Obama administration, the self-proclaimed champion of "open government," draws criticism from transparency groups for releasing information about population counts for horses and burros while hoarding more sensitive data on oil and gas leases.
And even when the most detailed data get released, it does not always lead to reformed policies, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his trenchant New Republic cover story last year. Establishing meaningful connections between information, transparency, and accountability will require more than just tinkering with spreadsheets; it will require building healthy democratic institutions and effective systems of checks and balances. The Internet can help, but only to an extent: It's political will, not more info, that is still too often missing.