Information Freedom in the United States
The United States of America ranked 45th of 103 nations assessed in a study that evaluated nations access to information laws. The study was conducted by the Center for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe. The United States of America has long been a proponent of individuals right to access information.
Freedom of Information ActAny United States citizen can request the release of any undisclosed information that the government may have. The Freedom of Information is considered a critical part of government accountability and transparency. In 2014 alone United States government received over 700,000 FIOA requests, up from 514,541 requests in 2009. There is no centralized agency that handles all requests, but instead each agency is required to process their own requests. In 2014 the Department of Justice granted the most full FIOA requests followed by the Social Security Administration and Department of Defense. The Department of Homeland Security granted the most partial FIOA request.
There are a few notable exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act. Most prominently, FIOA exempts information that contains secrets vital to national defense or foreign policy, personal or confidential information, and certain commercial information.
The Act has had several major amendments since it’s passing in 1966. In 1974 congress overrode President Gerald R. Ford’s veto of the Privacy Act that featured many amendments to FIOA. The Privacy Act of 1974 allows citizens to see all records about oneself and change them if they are inaccurate, while holding the government accountable for the records confidentially. In 1996 congress passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA), which mandated government agencies and departments to make certain records available electronically. President George W. Bush signed the OPEN Government Act in 2007 that updated FIOA and changed bureaucratic requirements surrounding the Act.
In addition to congressional amendments of FIOA, many Presidents have issued Executive Orders changing the definition and scope of the Act over the years. In the mid-1980s President Ronald Regan expanded the national security exemption to FIOA. In the 1990s President Bill Clinton took steps to nullify President Regan’s actions and expand the scope of the Act. President George W. Bush once again drastically expanded the scope of exemptions to FIOA of the September 11th Terrorism Attacks.
When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009 he promised more government transparency and openness. In 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech titled “Remarks on Internet Freedom” at the Newseum in Washington D.C. Her speech helped established both Internet and more broadly information freedom as a policy of the Obama administration. Secretary Clinton stated that “We feel strongly that principles like information freedom aren’t just good policy, not just somehow connected to our national values, but they are universal and they’re also good for business.”
The Obama administration has also been highly criticized for their repression of the Freedom of Information Act and prosecution of whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden Bradley Manning. In recent years about one third of FOIA requests that were denied by agencies under the Obama administration were done so illegally, only found after being challenged. The backlog of FIOA requests has also grown unprecedentedly under the Obama administration following a nine percent reduction in FIOA staff. In addition to President Obama’s FIOA record, the administration has charged 8 individuals under the 1917 Espionage Act. This is more than twice the number of individuals tried under the Act during all other presidencies since 1917.
Global Network Initiative To underscore the organizations objective of protecting freedom of expression and privacy, the GNI was established on October 29th, 2008. This date marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. The GNI is comprised of a collection of multinational technology companies, human rights and advocacy groups, and universities. The extensive list of high-profile organizations includes Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Harvard University, University of California, Berkley, and Human Rights Watch.
The GNI participants are required to uphold the principals of the organization despite any pressure from national governments to do otherwise. Furthermore, participating companies are instructed to conduct human rights impact assessments before launching new products or entering new markets. Participating companies are also encouraged to communicate and collaborate with one another in order to find singular approach to the intersection of human rights and digital technology. The GNI also actively works with its participating organizations to advocate for legal change at both national and international levels. The initiative publishes annual reports assessing their progress.
National, state-run, Internet censorship campaigns and practices have been established in a number of authoritarian countries. Both the Peoples Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) have extensive and complex Internet censorship systems. China utilizes what is known as “The Great Firewall”, which blocks the access to foreign IP addresses from within China. China also monitors and removes sensitive content from the nations search engines and social network sites. The scale of China’s Internet censorship program is immense. Amnesty International, an international human rights organization, estimates that China has roughly 30,000 to 50,000 “Internet police” dedicated to monitoring the nations digital traffic. In addition to the Internet monitor and censorship programs that China utilizes, North Korea strictly controls the physical access to information and communication technology (ICT). Outsiders estimate that only a couple of thousand national loyalists have access to the Internet in North Korea. To better control the flow of information in and out of the country, there is only one high-speed cable connecting the country to the outside world. Through their tight control of the Internet these two regimes do the most effective job in the world at control their citizens access to information in the world. Both nations have been widely criticized by the international community and human rights advocacy groups for their actions and infringement on human rights.
Right to be Forgotten
The Right to be Forgotten, also simply known as the Right to Forget, is a movement that began in the European Union in 2014 after the European Court of Justice ordered the search engine Google to delete certain search results that connected a Spanish man to previous articles about his financial debts. Currently the legal framework for the Right to be Forgotten movement exists in the European Union and a number of other countries including Argentina. To date the United States has struck down attempts to force Internet companies from removing content as part of the Right to be Forgotten movement. Forget.me was a service created to easily connect users with the Right to be Fogotten removal request in the European Union. The Right to Forget has been criticized for its implications involving freedom of speech, expression, and information.
Freedom of expression, privacy and speech are all inherit rights that all humans on the planet are supposed to be granted in accordance with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom to information falls within the scope of freedom of expression, privacy and speech. Any attempt to censor or diminish ones ability to access information is treated as a human rights offence. An ethical issue for information freedom that is likely to continue to grow in the future is the Right to be Forgotten movement. The intersection between these two ideals will possibly be the most important ethical dilemma for freedom of information advocates in the near future.