Information as a right

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion1 Comment

Bear with me in a post that’s going to be even less coherent than usual. (And that’s on the heels of the Great Graphic Debacle.)

Is access to information a right or a privilege?

In democracies, we believe that citizens have a right to their government’s information.

U.S. citizens are likely familiar with the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) and the various sunshine and open meeting laws. In 2005, India passed a Right to Information Act, which “requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally.” Other countries have similar legislation; the Right2Info organization “brings together information on the constitutional and legal framework for the right of access to information as well case law from more than 80 countries, organized and analyzed by topic.”

In the absence of a compelling government interest (the FoIA has nine, which include national security and personnel privacy issues), governmental information should be available to citizens. (This does assume, of course, that we are talking about governments who acknowledge that they are accountable to their citizens.)

If governments have an obligation to make information accessible to their citizens, does that equate to a right to the information? What about equal access to information? Is that a right?

For example, if certain public information information is readily available only on the Internet, does it follow that a citizen has a general right to Internet access? This question was actually considered by the European Union parliament last year, in the context of a new French law that cuts off Internet access to repeat offenders who infringe on copyrights with file-sharing:

Opponents of the legislation have responded by suggesting that Internet access is fundamental to liberty, an argument that suffered a setback on Wednesday as the European Parliament voted against codifying Internet access as a basic human right. (Is Internet Access a Fundamental Right?, CNet.com, May 6, 2009)

There are also interesting developments in financial information. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires publicly traded companies to make certain information available to the public. This information is delivered through the EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval) system.

Currently, the official submission format for EDGAR data is plain text or HTML, but the SEC is phasing in the use of an XML vocabulary called XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language).

“The purpose of the XBRL mandate is to make corporate financial information more easily available to stockholder.” (The XBRL mandate is here: Is IT ready?, Ephraim Schwarz, InfoWorld, November 25, 2008)

So in addition to mandating disclosure of corporate financial information, the SEC is now mandating easier access to the disclosed information. (A simple implication of XBRL is that you could more easily find executive compensation numbers.)

But what about non-governmental, non-regulated information? Is there a right to access? The business model of analyst firms (Gartner Group), business research companies (Dun & Bradstreet, Hoover’s), and, for that matter, the entire publishing industry (!!) says no. If you want information, you pay.

But look at the evolution of government philosophies and with that, content disclosure requirements. A king who reigns by divine right discloses what he wants to. A democratically elected leader must justify a lack of disclosure. It seems clear that we have shifted to the idea that access to government information is a right.

Will commercial information evolve in the same direction? There are actually some developments that point toward information as a right. In particular, the idea that information must be accessible—that information presentation should not exclude those with visual impairments or other disabilities—begins to build a foundation for equal access to information as a right.

What do you think? Will the right to information access be considered a bedrock principle in 50 or 100 years?

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

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Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

One Comment on “Information as a right”

  1. I do think people are nowadays more concerned about having access to information where it has an impact on them. However, I don’t see access to information as a bedrock principle. Privacy and ownership of private property are bedrock principles, and where they come into conflict with access to information, I believe we will see that there is a stronger precedent for preserving them than for making information available. Just my opinion.

    One criterion for determining the right to information is understanding its value to the audience. What value does the information have for the good of the public or an individual? For example, does the public have a right to know that a politician may be lying about sexual misconduct? Yes, because the personal integrity of a politician is relevant to his ability to conduct himself honestly in public office. Is there a value to the public having access to videotapes of the politician’s indiscretions? I don’t think so — just based on the ick factor if nothing else!

    What about a child’s right to know the health background of their parents, vs. the right of the parent to protect their own privacy? With regard especially to adopted children, does the benefit to the one outweigh the right to privacy of the other? Here it starts getting fuzzy, and the courts begin to weigh it in their slow, measured process on a case by case basis. The precedents are hard to overturn.

    In business, similar tests could be devised. If a single company held most of the patents related to the Internet and refused to license them or to expose the interface standards, the public welfare would be at risk. IBM ran into a similar situation with details of its 3270 architecture in the 70s and was eventually required by court settlement to provide details enabling equipment manufacturers to interconnect with the 3270 network. Not sure how it turned out for IBM, but that decision helped a lot of other businesses, both customers and competitors. On the other hand, if IBM had not decided to turn DITA over to OASIS to make it a public standard, would the courts have made them do it? (Actually, in that case, IBM recognized the benefits of sharing the standard with partners, customers, and the world at large, and they did the right thing. But they could have done otherwise, and who would have stopped them?)

    At a certain point, the right to privacy and to the ownership of information are beneficial not only for the individual, but for the public. J.K.Rowling owns her books, as well she should, and benefits financially from their positive qualities. If books like hers were initially published in the public domain, no one would be motivated by the allure of wealth (fame, possibly, but not wealth). We would have far less inventive authors, and the public would suffer. Drug companies and companies like Coca Cola with its private formula work on the same principles. Are they always right? No, but they are proven models that are currently working, and I think it would take a cultural and economic shift of revolutionary proportions to pry their clenched hands away from the data.

    The trick, as always, is to work out the details of the fuzzy areas. But I think the longstanding principles of privacy and ownership will be very difficult to undermine. And again, that’s just me…

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