Use + Remix

Special Report

Access to information is a vital pillar of democracy; informed citizens know their rights and can better hold their government to account. : Michael Joiner, 360info CC BY 4.0 Access to information is a vital pillar of democracy; informed citizens know their rights and can better hold their government to account. : Michael Joiner, 360info CC BY 4.0

360info explores the benefits and pitfalls of AI in obtaining crucial government and public information and how to better protect your privacy and safety.

Access to information is critical for enabling citizens to exercise their rights, effectively monitor and hold the government to account, and empower them to make informed decisions about issues affecting their lives.

But while 91 percent of the world’s population live in a country with a right to information law, having such rights in place doesn’t always make for a fair or transparent system.

A recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request by The Guardian in Australia revealed a clear abuse of power after documents showed former Prime Minister Scott Morrison organising a secretive cabinet committee, appointing himself to administer several government departments. However, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet decided to release only six meeting minutes and denied access to the remaining 733 documents, “citing confidentiality, harm to commonwealth-state relations, and adverse effects on an agency’s operation”.

Through FOI requests, openDemocracy, an independent international media platform, managed to uncover a controversial takeover of British Premier League football team Newcastle United involving a former UK minister and unlawful employment practices within the UK’s Ministry of Defence.

Meanwhile, widespread protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have prompted the US government to allow technology firms usually restricted by sanctions to help Iranians access information online amid internet shutdowns. Iran has a Publication and Free Access to Information Act adopted in 2009 giving citizens the right to request information from public institutions under limited circumstances.

For this year’s International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), UNESCO is aiming to highlight the opportunities of digital governance and AI in developing resilient societies and report on the global state of public access to information.

In a statement, the UNESCO’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay explained that the organisation is striving to protect and promote access to information as a fundamental human right, an essential step toward meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“In Africa, only 14 percent of households have internet access, compared to 57.4 percent globally.  Not only is it important to accelerate and enhance efforts towards affordable, open, secure, and high-quality Internet connectivity, but we must also work to ensure that all individuals are able to seek, receive and relay information. This means offering content that is diverse and available in multiple languages,”

“Therefore, we are urging countries around the world to embrace information as a global public good,” Azoulay said.

Researchers are exploring ways to future-proof the platforms, including having an accessible and sustainable open data ecosystem and strengthening freedom of information laws and policies. Citizens and journalists should also be equipped with knowledge of their rights to access information without repercussions.

REALITY CHECK

  • According to the human rights group, Article 19, since 2021, over 91 percent of the world’s population live in one of the 130 countries with a right to information law, while bills are pending in 29 countries.
  • As of August 2021, UNESCO revealed that 132 UN Member States have adopted constitutional, statutory, and/or policy guarantees for public access to information, with at least 22 countries adopting such guarantees since the 2030 Agenda in 2015.
  • Based on the UK’s Freedom of Information 2021 statistics, 51,507 FOI requests were received, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year. 88 percent of the requests were responded to in time, up from 87 percent in 2020.
  • In an annual report by the Office of the Victorian Information, between 2020 and 2021, 42,249 FOI requests were made to Victorian government agencies and Ministers in Australia. Most of the requests were made by individuals seeking access to their personal information.

BIG IDEAS

Quote attributable to Howard Lee, Murdoch University, Australia

“A monopoly on information is detrimental to the national interest and contradicts the Government’s belief that knowledge is critical to Singapore’s survival. In the longer term, it erodes trust in the Government. Yet the Government’s persistence in painting FOI into the corner of ‘bad policy ideas’ does little to encourage citizens to play a more active civic role.”

Quote attributable to Ashraf Shaharudin, Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), Netherlands

“Without legislative preparedness, Malaysia’s digital ambitions are mere buzzwords. In an increasingly digitalised society, digital threats such as loss of privacy and misuse of data are inevitable.”

Quote attributable Rashid Mehmood, King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia

“Deep learning, big data, and other new technologies are set to transform the way governments determine what is in the best interest of their citizens, supercharging the information they need to act intelligently and making policies and actions more transparent, preventing corruption and failure.”

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editor
Shahirah Hamid
Shahirah Hamid, Commissioning Editor, 360info Southeast Asia

Monash University has established and is proud to host the global headquarters for 360info. Monash University is also the host of the Asia-Pacific Hub.
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