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?