Last summer and fall, I was honored by invitations to speak at several conferences of local, state and federal administrators in the U.S. and Canada concerning public records, freedom of information (FOI) and privacy protection -- meetings from which I invariably learned more than I imparted. Some issues are becoming clear:
There are isolated instances of public officials suppressing public access to computerized public records in their useful, digital forms. However, at local and state levels, these are the exceptions rather than the rule (no matter how reporters howl). And most exceptions appear to be limited to law enforcement or disciplinary records or newly computerized information.
At local and state levels, the big issue is not access repression. It is whether to make records available "for free" (i.e., tax-prepaid), charge only for the cost of access, or charge the value of such modern records -- i.e., whatever the market will bear, serving the small minority willing and able to pay it. In some instances, there are also concerns for privacy protection, primarily where disclosable information is co-mingled with non-disclosable information.
At the federal level, the major problem appears to be conflict between the elderly FOI Act and equally antiquated Privacy Act of 1974 -- both of which are being bludgeoned into the Information Age by haphazard court decisions in the total absence of responsible action by Congress. This may be fortunate, since most members of Congress and many congressional staffers have illustrated a dangerous level of ignorance of -- and disregard for -- the realities and ramifications of modern information access and networking.
ACCESS VS. PRIVACY
Policymakers want balance between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy. Many are diligently trying to maintain the status quo -- seeking regulations to assure the same balance between access and privacy as has existed with paper records, copying machines and the opacity of paper volumes. But like 19th century officials who passed local ordinances requiring that gas buggies be preceded by someone ringing a bell and swinging a lantern, they are myopic: In the immediate future -- five to 10 years or less -- most disclosable government records will be primarily or exclusively collected, stored, retrieved and utilized in computerized form within most agencies.
There are only two alternatives: Either public access to and use of disclosable records will be radically enhanced, and personal privacy and agency confidentiality will be significantly reduced, or public access must be radically suppressed. (The third alternative of limiting access to computerized records only as paper printouts is ridiculous!) And it's unlikely that government can maintain records secrecy -- even less so than with the Pentagon Papers or Watergate disclosures that predated public networks and today's "Information Age."
These facts are much of the reason that privacy advocates and access advocates are lobbying decision-makers with increasing diligence and fear. (It
is also why some police-state nations on the Pacific Rim and in the Middle East are very hesitant to allow their citizens access to the irrepressible global Internet.) The relative ease and difficulty of access cannot remain approximately as it now is; the sunrise cannot be halted. And if secrecy overrides access, then citizens will have significantly less ability to be informed participants in the process of their own governance. There is no alternative.
MORE LIKE A BUSINESS?
On a different issue, officials often hear that, "Government should operate more like a business!" But citizens and business leaders don't mean that government should be a for-profit operation, with its services available only to those who can afford to pay for them -- especially not on top of [admittedly finite] taxes already paid. The public plea is that government efficiency and innovation be more like that of the private sector.