I attended the 11th International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC) on 10-14 March 2019 in Johannesburg South Africa with the theme “International cooperation to strengthen public access to information”. I found it very interesting and many asked me about the event. I, therefore, decided to share my insights from the event in the spirit of giving access to information to those who were not able to attend. I have focused on important themes rather than giving a record of what happened. Please note that these are my views and do not represent the views of the conference. This is not the conference statement.
Everyone interested in balancing rights and obligations regards data or information will find this article interesting. The conference is a gathering of Information Commissioners (or data protection authorities) from about 35 countries around the world. Anyone who has to comply with access to information laws, freedom of information laws or data protection laws will, therefore, be interested to know what supervisory authorities around the world are talking about.
Congratulations to the South African Information Regulator and others for bringing this International Conference of Information Commissioners to South Africa and organising such a great gathering of Information Commissioners.
There were lots of acronyms used at the International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC)
- ATI means access to information.
- FOI means freedom of information.
- RTI means right to information.
- RTK means the right to know.
- SDG means a sustainable development goal.
- III means Information is important.
- Infomediary means a person who takes complex data or information and turns it into accessible easy to use data.
Access to information is important and fundamental to modern democracies
Information is power. Access to information is empowerment.
- Both “Information is important” (III) and “Access to information” (ATI) is important. Many countries have interesting stories of their journey to the right to know or access to information laws, like South Africa’s journey to the right to know.
- There is a low level of awareness of PAIA in South Africa. This is why we will be running programmes on this topic.
- There is significant jurisprudence on access to information (lots of judgments). You must study them and use them to help you guide your actions going forward.
- There is a Model Law for African States on Access to Information. Many African countries have ATI laws but those that don’t should enact them.
- The Open Government Partnership (OGP) argue that open governments are more effective and we should all push for openness in each of our countries. Information Commissioners should push for this whenever possible.
- Enjoying the right of ATI leads you to enjoy another right. It is a gateway right.
- ATI can seriously help vulnerable groups, like women and children. Many vulnerable groups are prevented from getting the information they need to exercise their rights and live their lives. More needs to be done to put information (power) in the hands of the vulnerable, including those who are not educated and live in rural areas.
- Corruption flourishes in darkness and sunlight is the best disinfectant.
- Sustainable development goal 16.10 is to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements“.
- Infomediaries play an important role.
There are benefits of ATI besides complying with the law
- Prevent misconduct or criminal behaviour by making it more likely that people will get caught by increasing transparency. People are less likely to misbehave if they are more likely to get caught.
- Demonstrate how well you have been performing and the improvements you’ve made by proactively publishing information.
- Create a culture of openness, foster good relationships and support collaborative working by making information available.
- Build trust and confidence (which is essential for effective partnership working) by being open with information. People trust organisations that share information about their activities.
For more see the Scottish Information Commissioner Strategic Plan 2016-20 FOI: realising the benefits and supporting openness.
Digitisation impacts ATI
- Digitisation is happening fast.
- Vodacom has a very clear digitisation strategy.
- eProcurement systems can hide information and have a negative impact on ATI. In other words, information that is digitised can still closed.
- Digitisation does not automatically mean openness.
28 Sep is International Right to Know Day
The International Day for Universal Access to Information or aka International Right to Know Day was created to celebrate and promote the right to know. The right of access to information is an important human right, necessary for the enjoyment of other human rights. Everyone is encouraged to organise an event to celebrate the day and promote access to information. For example, you could arrange an Open Talk modelled on the TEDx concept.
Access to information is just as important as data protection
The two have to be thought of together. The inter-relationship between the two rights is fundamental and must always be considered. They can be complementary or conflicting and we must try to balance them. Often it is a balancing of public interest vs personal privacy.
The right to be forgotten
Some people joked that they wanted to exercise the right to be forgotten and some even suggested that it should be adopted on their country. But it is clear that the right to be forgotten is difficult to implement and there are problems with it. The balance between public information (ATI) vs privacy is a key balancing act. This is what the right to information is all about.
Open data sets are very important
Open data or databases have a very important role to play and enable people to find solutions by interrogating the data.
Machine learning is going to have a big impact
Machines double in their intelligence to understand the world every two years. Humans don’t do the same and therefore machines are going to have a profound impact on society.
Google is at the forefront of balancing the rights to data
Google is thinking deeply about these issues and its technology plays a vital role in automating access to information. It is essentially what Google does. Peter Fleischer (Global Privacy Counsel at Google) really cares about these issues and has a deep understanding of the balancing that needs to take place. He also understands the responsibility that lies with him to get the balance right. You can read more about this person thoughts on his blog. You can also watch his presentation to the International Conference of Information Commissioners.
Access to information and data protection are key issues in elections
Access to information and data protection are very important in elections. Information commissioners should be taking action against those who shut down the Internet during elections. It was suggested that the International Conference of Information Commissioners should develop an International guideline on both access to information and data protection in elections, which would contain a set of principles. The International Conference of Information Commissioners should consult other relevant bodies, like election management bodies.
We live in a global world
Having listened to and interacted with Information Commissioners from around the world, I’ve realised that the issues and laws are basically the same everywhere. There is definitely a common 80% amongst countries. International co-operation and standardisation is crucial. Maybe there should be one access to information law, one data protection law and one global Information Commissioner. It would make life a lot simpler. But this will never happen because people have different views on transparency and privacy. People around the world are different and therefore the laws will always be about 20% different in the different countries.
Information commissioners perform a very important role
We must build capacity within them. It is really important that each country establishes an independent, credible, and effective oversight body. They need to be correctly funded. The ICO said that authorities need three things to function correctly.
Each country should strive to appoint people with courage and then ensure that they are given the law and money. They must also co-operate and work together. Through sharing, more can be achieved. Information Commissioners should build bridges with civil society. Best practice must be shared across the world including the African continent.
It is important to monitor and report on progress
If you can’t measure it, you can manage it. UNESCO is coordinating this by gathering information and reporting back to the UN on SDG 16.10.