Thursday, February 5, 2009

Freedom Begins With Freedom of Information

The New South Wales Ombudsman has delivered his report into the operation of the state’s Freedom Of Information laws, and recommended scrapping the lot and starting over. It has been almost twenty years since the original act was passed and since then it has become “overly complex and unwieldy to use.” It must be remembered that in 1992 the internet was a novelty, and even mobile phones had not become common. Information technology has changed almost beyond recognition in that time, and the law has been left behind.

While the old Act has certainly meant people have enjoyed the right to access information that would once have remained buried in bureaucracy, it hardly reflects the way in which information is handled in a modern world. Even moribund government departments have embraced the digital age with many records no longer being held on paper. Meanwhile, the rest of society has evolved into something resembling a hive mentality with information of every variety flying around cyberspace at an astonishing rate.

These days, any member of Facebook can instantly check up on what their friends are doing. Any user of Twitter is constantly feed updates of any number of micro-blogs. Anyone with a Blackberry can check the headlines in any newspaper around the world at any time that suits them. Listen to the words! Facebook, Twitter, Blog, Blackberry. Even the language has completely changed. That’s why the old law just doesn’t reflect reality.

Now that modern information technology has transformed accessibility, it is timely that not only the law should reflect that, but also the government processes themselves. That’s why the Ombudsman has recommended that the new law should specifically presume that all information should be released unless an exclusion clearly applies. Information should be routinely published on websites of government agencies, circumventing the need for individuals to make an application for an item of interest to be released. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t already be freely available.

The Ombudsman also calls for the Act to be written in plain English, and for the position of Information Commissioner to be created. Such a Commissioner would be required to be a “champion” of the public in the application of the law, and act as the arbiter of what should and should not be released.

The concept of Freedom Of Information should be considered central to the ideal of a free and democratic society, and while most governments would be reluctant to expose themselves to anything which might reveal their inadequacies, there really is no alternative but to embrace the modern age. Any government which refused to do so would immediately be seen as having something to hide. The principles of democracy work best when public opinion is informed opinion, and for that to happen Freedom of Information is the key.

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