The US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is celebrating its 45th Birthday this year. It was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966, and its goal was to provide Americans with the right to petition their government to release documents deemed in the public interest which might not otherwise ever see the light of day. Since FOIA was enacted, hundreds of thousands of public records have been released. However, the process is not easy. Requests must be made in writing, documents must be found and analysed by the government, and FOIA requests can often take many years to fulfil if the government has an interest in withholding the information.
All requested records are provided on paper because in 1966 that's all there was. Computers occupied huge glass rooms and were not used for document archival or retrieval. Today of course, huge amounts of data and documents are stored on computers and the process of document retrieval should be much faster. But the government doesn't really want to make it easier because that would make government accountability far more transparent and lets face it people on the inside don't like transparency.
But the opacity of information is damaging. It creates asymmetries that favour organisations and disadvantage individuals.
Examples. You go to your doctor when you are sick and they pull out a big file on you. If you see a specialist, the doctor forwards your file to them. Get surgery and that goes in the file too. How come doctors have your data but you don't get a copy by default?
Answer: the medical industry just hasn't worked that way in the past and giving up your data means they give up some control over you as a patient. If you had your own data, you could share it online anonymously and ask many other patients and practitioners around the world to offer you options that might help you deal with your illness and find a cure beyond the scope and capabilities of your local practitioners. That capability isn't in their interest as care providers, but is in your interest. Unfortunately, your health information isn't free to obtain, and the continued opacity of your own data hurts you.
Another example. Congress is being lobbied today to pass all kinds of new restrictions on copyright infringement. Websites may be taken down if infringement is alleged, and there's even a new bill proposed to make the streaming of copyright material illegal. Why is it that corporations get so much protection for their content but you and I enjoy almost none? Why can't we copyright our Personally Identifiable Information and force organisations to pay us to use it?
You don't have Information Freedom if you can't even control your own information.
Lets reform FOIA before we celebrate its 50th Anniversary and make the Freedom of Information a universal human right. Our government should be transparent, access to trusted information should be unhindered, cheap, and universal, and we as citizens and consumers should be able to exercise far more control over our own information as a fundamental right of freedom.