A democratic tool
The rise of the Internet has created new expectations and citizens are now beginning to demand accountability from private sector organizations
This article shall look at ways in which governments can facilitate better access to information in both the public and private sector. This is an important factor in the e-Governance equation. Information sharing is an essential activity for governments for any form of e-Governance programme to succeed. The particular emphasis here is on the growing influence of the Internet and all the new, emerging communication technologies through which services can be delivered in all sectors of society.
In our information rich environment we need to finds ways for the citizen to be better informed. In the emerging knowledge economy it is time we looked at the whole question of information rights from a new perspective. In the past, the push has been on access to official government information. Much of this is codified in law in most developed countries (and many developing countries). As of June 2004 there are 54 national freedom of information laws passed and enacted or being proposed. There are dozens more such laws at the provincial/state, regional and local levels around the world that have resulted in increased government accountability. But, the rise of the Internet has created new expectations and citizens are now beginning to demand accountability from private sector organisations. Thus, governments have a role in providing not only better access to government information, but also leading discussions on how private sector organisations would be more accountable to the citizen, and contemplating what legislation might be necessary.
Data protection (also known as privacy laws in many countries) is currently the major information issue that covers both the public and private sector. In a very short period of time we are going to see freedom of information expand from the parameters of access to government documents to encompass both the public and private sector. Information best practices also need to be written in order to help the developing world. In an information rich era, combined with the rise of the dominance of the Digital Age in many countries, great potential exists to democratise information at all levels of society throughout the world. Due to our new information technologies, information is not only a commodity to be bartered in the marketplace but a potentially powerful democratic tool.
This is perhaps one of the most interesting times given that we are undergoing such an evolution as to how we live and operate as a society. We are witnessing a phenomenal abundance of change in societies around the world in a very short period. The source of some of this change is new technologies and the Internet. In the past decade and a half we have seen every aspect of the lives of individuals and organisations go through many evolutions and uncertainties. Large, medium and small corporations alike have discovered the need to adapt to the new technologies, or sink in the emerging global knowledge economy. There is no facet of life in the industrialised and developing world that has not undergone some form of shift. The resultant new information economy has brought with it different approaches to work. There has been a surge in tele-workers, entrepreneurs and home-run businesses. Corporations have downsized, and knowledge workers migrate from company to company, open to the highest bidder and the organisation with the best deal. The highly proficient, intelligent and innovative knowledge worker is in demand. Knowledge itself seems to have become a commodity in the marketplace of ideas. We now live in intense information driven society.
Nowhere has this been more evident than with government, who are constantly having to cope with the persistently emerging new technologies and demands from citizens. In today’s wired world, the interactive citizen is one of the fundamental cornerstones of change. Governments can no longer simply be dispensers of information. New technologies are being used not only to deliver services to the public but also to enhance government administration and facilitate businesses. Information sharing is of particular relevance to developing countries. Governments hold reams of information in both paper and electronic formats that are essential to a country. Much of this information sits in government databases and archives and is only circulated in a limited away within governments, or left dormant and unused. Much information is given to the public as a natural part of government services. However, what is distributed is limited in nature. Sharing different forms of information with the public could range from health to business to education to agriculture to weather, and a thousand and one other categories that could prove useful to an individual. Information sharing will need to become an essential part of the democratic process as governments become more open and accountable.
Information as a democratic tool
Within the next decade, or sooner, we will probably not even use the words ‘the Internet’, or ‘the Net’ because the actual convergences of technologies is creating a new phenomenon, especially with the rise of cell phones and handheld devices. Now an individual can be connected to the online world through a variety of technologies. The Internet will soon be seamless and ubiquitous to the citizen. Voice recognition technologies at home and at the workplace will allow you to receive your email, send a message, take a virtual tour of the office, meet others in virtual meeting spaces, go there anonymously with created identities, book a holiday, shop online from wherever you are, do research, book a movie, monitor the babysitter, and thousands of other functions all of which will depend on the needs and interests of the individual.
Whatever the opinions or views of individuals and governments in society it is evident that we need a far deeper debate and discourse over the impacts of technologies. There are concerns over ensuring that all citizens have universal access to the Internet (and are free to use it or not use it as they wish). There are serious, abiding anxieties about the digital divide that is occurring throughout the world.
The shape of information rights to come: democracy’s best tool
As the Internet takes hold in our daily lives, the need for governments to develop information policies to suit the changing nature of these technologies is becoming more evident. We are now awash with information in our new cyber environments. There are currently billions of pages out on the World Wide Web. Book publishing has flourished with many new artists and authors coming into the public consciousness due to the Internet. Self-publishers have a tool to express themselves. Web sites are dedicated to new authors in many countries around the world. This is just one trend amongst many.
The World Wide Web is now so big that some websites are not even getting joined to the network of networks because there might be a connection problem in their local area. Also, government and private organisations over the past few years have web sites that can only be accessed through their own Intranets, or by having a specific address for a website with a password to enter. ‘Google’ is an excellent search tool but is as good as it can access information in the public domain. The world is at the fingertips of the citizen, but the new challenge is actually finding what is out there and getting access to the vast amounts of information both on government web sites and in departmental databases. The government of Canada is working to find ways to merge their databases to enable citizens to take advantage of the information stored by the government. There are many technical problems being faced. This attempt to find ways to provide more information to the citizen reflects the desire to respond to a growing information aware society.
Information is shaping our world and information is now a precious commodity for the citizen. In these new online environments, citizens are increasingly demanding more privacy rights to protect their personal information. However, there is also a contradiction here. At the moment citizens are sharing and using personal and aggregate information more than ever before. But in a cyberspace environment, the citizen is becoming increasingly sophisticated in understanding the impact that information can have on one’s life. The individual wants to ensure that one’s own personal information is not abused. The individual wants the ability to control his/her personal information environment in cyberspace. At the same time, the individual wants unfettered access to all manner of information. But the sheer amount of information available, the ability to communicate information, and the value that individuals put on information, is bringing a new understanding of the nature of information itself.
Thus, on the side of freedom of information the public is starting to demand more information for all facets of their lives. We see more data on labels of commercial products; shareholders demand more information about the activities of the companies in which they are investing (not just the usual ‘hyped’ good news about the company’s activities in the past year). Much of this trend has been driven by the alleged financial malfeasance of companies such as Enron and WorldCom in the United States and Nortel Networks in Canada. Citizens are demanding and seeking more information about many activities in society. The Information Age appears to be bringing more demands for accountability. In the years to come, the public could come to expect more and more accountability in the form of enlightening information, from private and public organisations alike. Users are driving this change on the Internet, where there is now so much discourse, exchange of information, and thousands of blogs. The Internet is an open network, which is contributing to the development of open environments. This idea is now spreading into society as a whole, resulting in demands for more and more accountability from all our public and private sector organisations.
Thus, it appears that the next wave of information rights is beginning to spread out to the private sector as government, the courts, public interest groups and citizens demand accountability and transparency. As the average citizen becomes armed with more knowledge (or at least has the capacity to be armed with knowledge), then it will be private sector organisations, along with governments, who are going to have to become more forthcoming about the information held in their organisations. The private sector here means not just large corporations or businesses, but rather all organisations, including non-profits. Just as privacy moved into the domain of the private sector 30 years ago, when Sweden passed the first data protection law in the world, so will freedom of information become a part of the private sector domain. The shape and form it takes will be different, but providing of more information to society will occur.
In the future, we will probably not even use the words the Internet, or the Net because the actual convergences of technologies is creating a new phenomenon
We currently live in an age of individuals’ rights developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This will change as the recognition dawns that it is also the aggregate rights that strengthen the citizenry as a whole. As this idea flourishes, demands for information on a more sophisticated level will grow. Information Rights will become a part of civil society’s infrastructure. As the knowledge economy grows, and the knowledge professional comes to be seen as a continuing, powerful force in our society, so will the demands grow for wider swathes of information. It might seem at the moment that we already live in a world with too much information. This change of demand for information will be for ‘organised’ information that informs, not overwhelms, the citizen. These trends are creating increasingly new problems for governments. In the spreading e-democracy movement around the world the major emphasis is on how governments can better provide information to the citizen and how the public can take advantage of what is available from government. Technology is the key driver in finding ways and means to allow the public to access public information.
Information is now an issue in a new form, and governments are going to be subject to pressures from emerging information forces in society. For example, the secrecy of governments, at the moment, is defined to the degree that information is shared with the public. The lack of efficacy of a freedom of information law is shown by the narrowness with which government exempts information from the public. But the challenge of governments now is not just to pass or amend freedom of information laws. In our new environments, we have to look at information as the force it has become in society. Changing environments bring different attitudes. We need modern information policies that reflect these changes in our society.
For example, as governments go online with electronic service delivery, more content is going to become available to the public. However, it is not going to be enough to put information up on a website. Any information is going to have to be organised. In many cases, there is too much information on a website, which makes the site virtually unusable by the citizen. Thus, information management is rising in importance as an important discipline within government. This is vital, so that policies can be evolved that ensure citizens get the information they need and want (not what someone ‘thinks’ the public want), and at the same time protect individual privacy.
Once governments put content online, a policy issue will immediately emerge. The private sector learnt this in the early days of the web. The growth of online marketing and e-Commerce brought with it major privacy and copyright issues. If the citizen who goes online for government information finds a request rejected, the issue would become: why can’t I have access? Part of the answer to this is that government departments and agencies decide in advance what information can be public, based on their respective freedom of information laws, and make them publicly available in a comprehensive form.
In an information-intensive society, citizens might want more from both governments and the private sector alike. The above is simply an overview of the emerging issues and problems. Solutions need to be sought, as these new technologies become even more persuasive forces in our society.
Possible solutions: Information as a practical tool
This is a good model to be followed not only by national governments but international organisations. If we are to handle the digital divide between those who have the opportunities to be online, and the vast numbers of people who cannot necessarily afford the costs of going online, it is going to be essential to level the playing field. In any populist democracy it is important that initiatives embrace all people. At the moment it is estimated that there are about 400 million people online. These are small numbers where our world population has exceeded 6 billion people.
International organisations could also conduct programmes to educate people on usage of the Internet. Education then leads to individual usage. It will, naturally, vary across individuals but through knowledge of how to use the Internet, people can be participants in this new trend in democracy as they see fit. Such programmes can embrace many peoples around the world and ensure that the users who most benefit are not just those in the affluent, industrialised countries.
National governments should seek ways to engage their citizenry in the process of government. They can do this in many ways such as:
• making more information available online from government itself to ensure there is an informed citizenry
• providing websites that seek input from people on all manner of government programmes and issues
• developing listserves, discussion groups on important national issues, and other means to engage the citizenry
• providing grants to organisations seeking online democratic activities
• developing local community projects that embrace all levels of society from the academic world, to businesses (large and small), to non-profit and volunteer organisations; this can encompass governments in developing countries
• developing easy to use websites to facilitate seamless access by citizens
• ensuring information on websites is easily attainable, in a form understood by the citizen and can easily be downloaded
• provide search engines and hot links to ensure that the citizen gets what he or she wants in the right format from the right agency
• work to develop information policies and policies to implement different communications technologies that encompass all the citizens in the countries (especially in developing countries where access to the Internet is limited)
• develop programmes to teach local leaders, public minded citizens and volunteers in the communities to become information facilitators
As indicated above, the Internet is a medium that has allowed people to involve themselves in the democratic process in new and unique ways. Governments at all levels and international organisations will increasingly be impacted by these changes. Thus, there is also a need for awareness-building within governments and international organisations of the changes that are occurring. This can be accomplished through educational and training programmes. Disseminating information on a wide basis can improve conditions in a country. Information sharing from the government is the lynchpin of the Knowledge Society. For such a society to evolve worldwide, it is incumbent on governments to do what they must to bring all its people’s into this new economy.