Freedom of Information and getting things done

Last night I was very privileged to have been invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CfFoI). I have to concede, that I was more than a little surprised to have received an invite, I am not someone who works within the field and therefore have no first-hand experience of dealing with the Act or any real expertise in the area. That said, as a librarian I am passionate about the importance of an informed citizenry that can both engage fully in the democratic process and hold elected officials to account. For this reason, I am a great believer in the Act and believe that the CfFoI is a vital force for good in a country that has a history of keeping citizens in the dark.

Listening to those who have been working for 30 years to firstly establish a Freedom of Information Act, then to keep the pressure on to ensure that an imperfect Act is improved and defended from efforts to try to water it down and diminish it (and we know full well there will be repeated efforts by agents of the state to diminish the Act and undermine its credibility) was particularly inspiring. As someone involved in various campaigns and groups, a lot of the words really rang true.

Campaigning is hard. It’s all graft and grind with very little reward. Indeed, the fact that it took 20 years for the CfFoI to be successful in getting an FoI Act on the statute book underlines how difficult it is to be successful. It takes years of dedication, a whole host of sacrifices, very little glory and perpetual optimism. As one speaker said last night, campaigning is not about photo ops and marches, it’s about the daily grind, doing the grotty (and often tedious) work that takes your campaign forward and that, ultimately, leads to success. Successful campaigns are built on years of hard work.

From my perspective, I always argue that it is best not to get bogged down in believing that you will get results quickly. That what you aspire to will come to fruition within a short time frame. It won’t. It’ll take years. Some of the change you may aspire to will probably not even happen within your lifetime. The important bit is to do the graft and lay the groundwork. So long as you are realistic, I believe you can maintain that dedication and enthusiasm for whatever cause you are involved in. If you are too unrealistic, you will very quickly find yourself burnt out and disillusioned. Fight for what you believe in, but be aware that it will take time, effort and dedication. Change does not come easy.

The people behind CfFoI have kept that dedication, that determination to be successful in effecting real change in terms of how we are governed. By creating an environment where at least there is a chink of light where before there was only darkness. The challenge now, in my view, is to turn that chink of light into something bigger.

Ian Hislop speaking at last night’s event.

One other thing that was re-emphasised for me last night was the importance of building connections across the information profession. I certainly find within the world of the librarian we often seem to exist in a silo that is detached from other information professionals. I struggle sometimes to understand this. Of course we all have our individual areas of expertise, but I think it is important for librarians (who after all are concerned with facilitating access to information) to be aware of and engaged with such discussions across the profession. As librarians we should be engaged with the fight for freedom of information, we should be helping citizens to utilise the tools available to them to hold their elected officials to account. We should be engaged in data protection, particularly in a world where data is increasingly being bought and sold, often without the awareness of those who the data is extracted from. As librarians we should be engaged in making information and data more accessible with regards to the state, whilst protecting individuals from the commodification of their personal data. When one considers the ethics that underpin our profession, it is clear that we should be engaged in these areas.

The last ten years are not an end with regard to the battle to ensure transparent governance, they are a beginning. With further funding cuts in the pipeline, the growth of private sector contracts to deliver public services presents new challenges. As government seeks to outsource public services, so we lose our right to know. It is clear that the Freedom of Information Act will need to be expanded and adapted in the years to come. To have any hope of achieving that, groups such as the CfFoI need to continue keeping the pressure on. But for them to do so requires all of us who believe in their aims to show our support in whatever way we can to ensure that not only does the Act continue to remain relevant but that the light it shines on how we are governed gets brighter rather than dimmer. The efforts of those who have led the campaign over the past 30 years demonstrates that whilst it won’t be easy, we can be optimistic.

You can find out more about the Campaign for Freedom of Information here. I’d urge you to support them in whatever way you can.

If you’ve done nothing wrong…

I caught an interesting blog by Jon Baines over at Information Rights and Wrongs yesterday on data protection and the extent of the “database state”.  Jon writes that a data protection officer he knows is being pushed to “encourage greater sharing of information between their public sector organisation and other public sector bodies.”  As he goes on to point out, this push is not only coming from management, it is coming from central government.

Last month, The Guardian revealed that the government is planning to make it easier for public agencies to share information.  According to the report:

Ministers are planning a shakeup of the law on the use of confidential personal data to make it far easier for government and public-sector organisations to share confidential information supplied by the public.

Proposals to be published next month by the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, are expected to include fast-track procedures for ministers to license the sharing of data in areas where it is currently prohibited, subject to privacy safeguards.

Before the election, the Tories gave a clear commitment to “roll back the advance of Big Brother”.  Indeed, their manifesto stated:

The database state is a poor substitute for the human judgement essential to the delivery of public services. Worse than that, it gives people false comfort that an infallible central state is looking after their best interests. But the many scandals of lost data, leaked documents and database failures have put millions at risk. It is time for a new approach to protecting our liberty.

It is clear that they have now u-turned on this policy and are actually expanding the extent of the “database state”.  As the aforementioned Guardian article goes on to state:

Despite the coalition government’s pre-election promises to roll back the database state, the growth of internal Whitehall databases has quietly continued apace in the last two years. A newly created “drug data warehouse” has been set up containing anonymised details of more than 1 million individuals who use illicit drugs.

I find these developments deeply concerning in the current economic and political climate.  Such policies may seem harmless and benign in a stable environment, but these are not stable times.

In times of severe depression, there is always a very real risk that people will flock to extremes to seek answers.  If people do not feel that the government is on their side when they are losing their jobs or feeling the effects of the depression, they will look towards those who are on their side (or at least appear to be).  This simple principle has been demonstrated with the recent election in Greece and the rather disturbing results that emerged from a country in the grip of crisis.

Whilst all eyes were on France and the victory of Hollande, in Greece it emerged that a far-right, anti-immigration party had won a large enough percentage of the vote to gain a seat in the Greek parliament.  For 5-7% of voters, Golden Dawn appeared to be on their side.  For this section of Greek society, a far-right party did have the solutions to resolve the economic difficulties the country is experiencing.  Many Greeks felt that the government was not on their side, not listening to their concerns and subsequently they turned to extremists who (apparently) were.

We are, at present, a long way off this situation and certainly there is no immediate sense that a far-right party will gain a seat in parliament (although I often feel we are teetering on the brink).  However, whilst the implications of the economic crisis are not clear, it is difficult to maintain absolute confidence that fascist parties won’t gain a foothold.  Certainly, if people feel that the governments are not on their side through the crisis there is a danger they could be persuaded by extremist parties that are otherwise consigned to the margins.  But what is really concerning is the extent to which recent governments have put the mechanisms in place for a truly efficient fascist state.

For many years now, we have had security cameras on every street corner ostensibly to ‘protect’ us as citizens.  Indeed, there are presently around 2 million CCTV cameras on UK streets, more than any other country in Europe, despite the lack of clear evidence they have had asignificant impact on solving crime.  It is easier than ever before to monitor citizens and track their movements.  Whilst there are movements against the widespread use of CCTV, for many such technology has been broadly accepted (if not welcomed in some cases) as part of the mechanisms required to tackle crime.  The extent of public surveillance and the growth of the “database state” should concern us all in such unstable times.

Going back to the issue of data collection, Jon writes in his excellent blog post:

In a non-liberal state, however, similar information that has possibly been innocently, or naively, collated, can be misused in horrendous ways: so, in 1940s Holland, municipal registers were used by the Nazis to identify and persecute Jews, trade union membership listsused to persecute organised labour and public health and crime records used to persecute the disabled and criminals.

He concludes:

Data-sharing can have enormous and beneficial implications, but we need to exercise caution. We mustn’t amass personal data just because we can. We mustn’t use that data for purposes which were not envisaged when we gathered it. And we mustn’t retain that data just because we can’t be bothered to think what to do with it after its usefulness has passed.

Indeed, data-sharing does provide many benefits, but we must not abandon basic principles designed to protect the individual.  Furthermore, despite the fact that the above principles are enshrined in the statutory Principles in the Data Protection Act 1998 (as Jon states), this does not mean we shouldn’t have concerns about the extent of information held by the state on individuals and the extent to which the database state is expanding.  Many of the mechanisms that are currently in place would make for a highly efficient fascist state.

I have often heard those who defend CCTV and the expansion of the “database state” employ the “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” argument.  That’s all well and good but you are not the one that defines what is right or wrong.  They are.