In this Big Data & Society commentary, Karen Levy and Dave Johns suggest that “legislative efforts that invoke the language of data transparency can sometimes function as ‘Trojan Horses’ through which other political goals are pursued.”
Openness and transparency are becoming hallmarks of responsible data practice in science and governance. Concerns about data falsification, erroneous analysis, and misleading presentation of research results have recently strengthened the call for new procedures that ensure public accountability for data-driven decisions. Though we generally count ourselves in favor of increased transparency in data practice, this Commentary highlights a caveat. We suggest that legislative efforts that invoke the language of data transparency can sometimes function as ‘‘Trojan Horses’’ through which other political goals are pursued. Framing these maneuvers in the language of transparency can be strategic, because approaches that emphasize open access to data carry tremendous appeal, particularly in current political and technological contexts. We illustrate our argument through two examples of pro-transparency policy efforts, one historical and one current: industry-backed ‘‘sound science’’ initiatives in the 1990s, and contemporary legislative efforts to open environmental data to public inspection. Rules that exist mainly to impede science-based policy processes weaponize the concept of data transparency. The discussion illustrates that, much as Big Data itself requires critical assessment, the processes and principles that attend it—like transparency—also carry political valence, and, as such, warrant careful analysis.