Yesterday my colleague Paul and I visited the annual conference organized by the Flemish government’s information management / IT office. We were there to speak about the open data experiences of the Netherlands.

The upcoming GDPR, Europe’s new privacy regulations, was mentioned and discussed a lot. Such pan-European laws suggest that there is a generic way to approach a topic like privacy, or even an objective one. Nonetheless the actual perception of privacy is strongly culturally determined as well, Toon van Agt remarked during his presentation, and pointing to us Dutchies sitting on the front row. He gave the example of how in the Netherlands real estate transaction prices and mortgages on a house are publicly available (if not yet as open data I must add. Transaction prices are available as open data in the UK, afaik). Where in the Netherlands this is regarded as necessary to be able to determine who you’re dealing with if you buy or sell a house, in Belgium it would be unthinkable. In my own presentation I showed how open data from the license plate register is used in the Netherlands to prevent theft of petrol at gas stations. Again unthinkable in Belgium, mostly because of the fundamental difference that license plates in the Netherlands are connected to a car (and the car to an owner), and in Belgium to the car owner (and the owner to a car). Calvinism was put forward as a determining difference, resulting in Dutch window curtains being open, so everyone can see a) we have nothing to hide and/or b) we have the coolest stuff in the street :). Similarly the tax amounts and incomes of Norwegians are famously public, whereas in the Netherlands asking how much someone earns or even worse touting how much you earn yourself, is frowned upon and not suitable for polite conversation.

It would be interesting to create an overview of socially acceptable and unacceptable forms of transparency across Europe. To learn where further opportunities for open data are to be found, as well as to see where social barriers can be expected.

4 reactions on ““Privacy is Cultural”

    • Cool! I’ve edited the entries, adding data sources etc, for the examples you already listed, and added another one that’s shocking to us Dutchies. Tweeted the request for additional entries.

  1. Fascinating.

    Similar issues are at please with regards to real estate pricing in Toronto:

    I would add another category to the curtains open/curtains closed, which is “curtains appear to be open, but may not be.”

    For example, here in Prince Edward Island, in a story I fell into the middle of 10 years ago (, information about which people own a company is public, but information about which companies a person owns is not.

    In other words, you can look up my company’s record, and see a list of the owners. But you cannot look up my name and see which companies I own all or a part of.

    The later has only really become technically possible in the digital age, when databases can be sorted on different fields, and the legislation that’s crafted surrounding this never anticipated this.

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