Adler on Data Governance
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.
Not two months after I made this declaration at the IBM Data Governance Council Meeting at the US Embassy in Paris on April 14, 2011 (and wrote about it in a blog on May 11), the United Nations has published a report entitled "The Freedom of Information as an Internationally Protected Human Right."
Since the 18th Century, Freedom of Expression has become enshrined in constitutions around the world as a Basic Human Right. It defines Democracy in its defense and Dictatorships in its assault. People like to control and don't like to be controlled, and the tension between controlling and being controlled requires this Human Right to be defended and re-defined every year. Sometimes, like during the McCarthy Era in the United States, the tide turns against Freedom. Other times, like in the Middle East today, the Freedom to speak changes the course of history.
But there is another Freedom not yet defended as a universal Human Right that should be and it is the Freedom of Information - the right to be informed, to learn. This right is implied by the Freedoms of Press and Speech, but it is not articulated explicitly as a constitutional right. Around the world, many nations have Freedom of Information Acts that require national and local governments to make information available to the public. Those acts were created when widespread access to information was rare. Libraries and archives were places where large amounts of information could be physically retrieved and governmental disclosure was paper-based. Universities and Governments were the largest aggregations of information, and they were the places you visited to get information.
But today, with the Internet, human beings have potential access to information without physical limits and it is that potential that must be enshrined in law as a basic human right. Every human being on the planet should have the right to access information freely and without threat of harm. Like Free Speech, that right should be defended even when the content of information accessed are heinous and injurious to some. Any society or nation without the Freedom of Information as a basic human right is a place that can be controlled and manipulated.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are 40 nations around the world that restrict access to the Internet or Social Networks. Many of these nations also block satellite TV and other forms of communication. But even in Western Democracies, Information Access is controlled by cost, technology barriers, labor protections, and secrecy laws. Even the most advanced nations have huge regions without access to the Internet. And some nations now seek to tax content flowing over the Internet as a means to restrict trade and favor local providers.
This is not a question of commercial competition. This is a question of human progress. Where there are people unable to access information freely there are opportunities for oppression and abuse. Democracy and Freedom will not thrive or survive without the Freedom of Information. To be ill-informed and speak freely is a condition of intellectual slavery.
I believe that we must work to assert the Freedom of Information as a basic Human Right. It must be a 21st Century Goal to connect every human being on the planet to high quality trusted information. There should be no technical, political, cultural, or economic barriers to Information.
It should be as easy as air and as cheap as water, taken for granted and governed by statute in every nation around the world.