How to move forward in the Access to Information Movement

By María Paula Ángel*


In Dejusticia we have been working on the promotion of the right to public information for a long time now. As a human rights NGO, we have employed rights-based tools and arguments to defend this right. Nevertheless, after almost a year and a half of working on the issue, I have learned that at some point, the human rights perspective is not enough to push the right forward. Instead, the time has come to collaborate more closely with tech-oriented background actors, such as the Open Government Data Movement.

The Right of Access to Information Movement is a global civil society movement which campaigns for greater openness of the information, documents and databases held by the public bodies. It consists of civil society organizations, academics, lawyers, journalists, information commissioners and other activists working on access to information from a human rights perspective.

As a member of the Alianza Más Información Más Derechos, Dejusticia has also been part of this movement. Together, with the other members of the alliance, we advocated to promote the adoption of the access to information law in Colombia in 2014, as well as the proactive and reactive disclosure of information by all branches of state power. Moreover, we monitor the implementation of the law and the proper application of the public interest test, used to evaluate if there is an overriding public interest that requires public bodies to release some information even if it potentially falls under one of the access to information exceptions. When needed, we also litigate to promote compliance with the right to information and provide technical assistance to government bodies to encourage greater transparency in practice. We have also worked on one of the most debated areas of information law: the balancing of the right to information and the right to privacy.

In any of the above activities we always emphasize that access to public information is a fundamental human right; not just a preference or an option of the public bodies. In addition, we highlight that it is not only a human right, but also an instrumental right (“key right”) to achieve other rights. Thus, we talk about democracy, accountability, participation in decision-making and access to social rights as effects of a well exercised right to public information.

However, throughout this process we have detected several factors that interfere with the progress of the right. There is, for example, a deficit in the budget, institutional capacity and political will to implement the law in several of the public and private bodies that are bound by it. Nevertheless, we have also found that even when these institutional conditions are met, the implementation of the law is hampered by technological and legal problems that arise when trying to implement the right, and that will not be solved by simply underlining the democratic benefits of transparency or balancing confronting rights.

Logo of the Alianza Más Información Más Derechos

Logo of the Alianza Más Información Más Derechos

Even though the latter are not directly human rights issues, if the access to information advocates really want to push forward the implementation of the law, we are called to address the technological and legal problems that are hindering it. Consequently, it is time to stop designing our strategies only from a rights-based perspective and join forces with actors that come from a more tech-oriented background.

Unlike the Right of Access to Information Movement, the Open Government Data Movement activists focus on the technical and legal conditions that have to be met to have real open government data. In addition, they are interested in building IT applications that may enable the public to use publicly created information in new and innovative ways. Not only in Colombia, but also in other countries, e.g. India, there are Open Government Data organizations with answers and experiences to share. Thus, their techy approach can complement the arguments and tools already employed by our rights-based organizations.

Photo by: Sebastiaan ter Burg

Photo by: Sebastiaan ter Burg

On the one hand, further networking with these organizations will empower us with new and renovated arguments. Besides endorsing the democratic advantages of the disclosure of raw data in the hands of governments, open government data advocates put forward social and economic arguments that stress the human development that derives from allowing members of the public to use and add value to already-existing information. It is time to explore these new perspectives. How can government data be harnessed to extract new forms of value? What does Big Data for government data really mean? Which are the alleged societal benefits (and possible risks) of this new phenomenon? Joining multidisciplinary debates with the Open Government Data community will allow us to improve our discourse and be able to convince new audiences with novel and more diverse arguments that may interest them.

On the other hand, networking with the Open Government Data community will allow us to enrich our technical assistance toolbox. Foremost, it will permit us to get involved in open data standard-setting activities. Open Government Data advocates have designed various sets of open government data principles. But what does it really mean to publish raw, up-to-date and linked data? How do we “materially” ensure the right of access to information in electronic, machine-readable and open file formats? Understanding this fully will give us the necessary tools to overcome the practical obstacles that arise when providing technical assistance to government bodies.

Photo by: justgrimes

Photo by: justgrimes

Second, it will enable us to address the legal issues related to copyright and licenses. Currently, the existence of intellectual property ownership rights over the information public bodies produce is not clearly resolved. However, the Open Government Data advocates handle a variety of different tools to ensure that all public data is in the public domain or is released under licenses which permit re-use and redistribution of the government-held information.Therefore, we have to appeal to open government data expertise to understand the way things are currently working and jointly evaluate whether or not this is appropriate given the  international standards on access to information.

Third, networking with the Open Government Data organizations will allow us to understand the real limitations of one of the technical approaches that we currently trust to protect privacy: anonymization. Anonymization refers to stripping out from government data any personal identifiers, so the resulting data can then be shared without compromising anyone’s privacy. However, according to big-data geeks, anonymization works in a world of small data, but big data, with its increase in the quantity and variety of information, facilitates re-identification. Therefore, we need to understand the real possibilities of the tools we usually recommend, as well as the new technical instruments that are available and may be more effective.

Time has come to be up to speed on these techy issues. Networking with open government data advocates from different parts of the world will not only empower us with new and renovated arguments, but also give us the necessary tools to understand and overcome the practical obstacles that are currently undermining the full implementation of the access to information laws. It can even allow us to find out other human rights challenges to tackle, and once again, new networks to explore.


*María Paula Ángel is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: N i c o l a