Freedom of Information

Friday, 1 March 2019

An underlying principle of the library and information professions is that it’s a basic human right to have freedom of access to information, ideas and works of imagination, without bias or censorship. This principle upholds a number of other human rights, as information in all its forms is fundamental to understanding yourself, your place in the world, how to exercise your rights as a citizen and express yourself. Knowledge is power, so it’s important that everyday people have access to a choice of information, without too many barriers being imposed.

The values of, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), are based on this right. ALIA promotes and supports freedom of information as one of the ways of ensuring Truth, Integrity and Knowledge (TIK) in our society.

These views are strongly held by the profession and tie closely to notions of democracy: a community that is better informed can participate more effectively in the nation’s democratic processes. However, as the digital world continues to disrupt society, particularly in knowledge, information management and communications we have new challenges to meet.

In the past, accessing information was often limited. Published and transmittable forms of information were in physical formats; there were a small number of media channels; educational institutions used a number of set texts to transmit information and develop knowledge. Our professional ideas around freedom of information, and around storage management and access, developed in that frame. These days we’re aware of the avalanche of information that’s been unleashed and how readily people access the internet on their smart phones and other devices. However, despite information being more available, this has created new challenges.

Freedom of expression, equity, privacy and open access will be explored in future TIK posts, but let’s look at some trends and challenges around freedom of information.

The internet has been heralded as the engine of human liberation – the great equalizer and democratiser. This assumes anyone with access to the internet is able to source information they want. Of course, this potential exists but these high ideals may not always play out this way.

Information should be free of bias, manipulation and interference:

In the past when we read or viewed something, we felt able to assess its credibility and bias. With online information, many people don’t know how to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’; don’t always know how to judge reliable sources and can’t always determine bias. These skills aren’t easy, and the digital world is not necessarily set up to help the consumer to do so. As we know from social media or internet shopping, data is being gathered and consolidated about each and every one of us in order to meet their particular needs – and to feed them what they think they want – whether it’s something to buy, how to use their time or how to think. So many people are accessing information that is deliberately manipulated for a range of motivations.

Library and information workers can help clients become critical users of information: to build critical digital literacy skills, which challenge bias and deliberate manipulation. We can share tools and curate information in ways that support particular social justice themes and points of view to counter disinformation that might be encountered.

Information should be accessible to most people:

Inherent in the notion of freedom of information is that it’s available and it’s within the reach of the average citizen. Libraries are often places where people access material that’s not available elsewhere. An individual may access information in a library without cost (free) because the cost is subsidised by government and becomes relatively cheap per use by having many users.

As data increases as a commodity, with significant value attached, there is the possibility that what was once information in the public domain, becomes ‘owned’ and controlled. An example of this is the Australian Standards. They are all online (very convenient) and available for purchase. So if you want to check the standard for ‘Termite Management in and around existing buildings and structures AS 3660.2:2017’, it will set you back $152.66.

The consortia of the National and State Libraries of Australia (NSLA) has struck a deal with the vendor to make them free for individual, private use for a period of time. However, these arrangements are hard won, and future access could become harder than previously. This trend to commoditise information is likely to continue.

If we believe that data and information should remain ‘freely available’ we’ll need to fight not only for improved access, but also for arrangements that allow continued access for private citizens at low or no cost. We also need to ensure that considerations of access include a diverse range of users and special conditions to support them.

Information should not be restricted:

The library profession supports unrestricted access to information without judgement (within legal frameworks). We don’t support withholding information, although some collections may be arranged to protect children or to protect particular sensitivities or the rights of certain groups. We also need to recognise that every human endeavour, including librarianship, is subject to bias. Even discovery and online tools have in-built bias, intentional or otherwise.

Obviously, internet filters are required to support cybersafe experiences for children and the broader public, and internet monitoring will be undertaken according to law. But the notion of adults freely exploring information means they should be able to search the net with minimal interference and tracking – sometimes a challenge in our online environment and sometimes against societal expectations. This also creates new challenges in balancing privacy concerns – a topic for a future blog in the series.

Despite more information than ever being on the net, some argue the internet is becoming less ‘free’. According to Freedom House, a non-profit, nonpartisan organisation, there is a move towards ‘digital authoritarianism’. In the report Freedom on the Net 2018, 26 of 65 countries assessed had experienced deterioration in internet freedom through government restrictions.

Claims are made that this is to restore trust in the internet, but the report suggests almost half of all declines were related to elections. Generally, democratic ideals don’t sit well with governments that censor, restrict, withhold information or spread propaganda, so this trend is worrying for democracy.

Perhaps the library and information professions may need to advocate for a balance between public and private good. Let’s encourage informed debate about new forms of censorship and control of information.

Government decision making and records will be made available to the public

In Australia, we’re used to the idea that the record of policy and decisions of government are kept and made available to the public. The public have a right to know what information is being stored, particularly about individuals. Over time, historical records are usually stored in archives and these primary sources become evidence of past activities.

In Australia, the Freedom of Information Act 1982 provides a legally enforceable right of access to government documents. However, the mechanism by which individuals and groups request access to information can be cumbersome and somewhat hard to navigate.

Information professionals often provide guidelines and support for people seeking information through a Freedom of Information request. Without support, many people may just give up – particularly if the process is difficult or overly bureaucratic.

So what can we do?:

In summary, we live in a world where there is more information available than ever before. We have the technical means for many people to access what they want, whenever and wherever they may choose.

However, many individuals will continue to need support in accessing information, one of the key functions of our profession. In order to support Freedom of Information more broadly, we’ll need to be active participants in the ethical, legal, commercial and political debates around this issue. Stay alert, and hopefully not alarmed!

In these ways we can support Truth, Integrity and Knowledge.