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Government Openness and Government Secrecy

As we reach the end of the year, it is a good time to review government openness and transparency and secrecy. There are a number of reports and comments and relevant stories coming out this week that relate to this topic. Here are a few:

The Good the Bad and the Ugly
OMB watch has a useful wrap up in its 2006 Transparency Awards (December 19, 2006 Vol. 7, No. 25). They include The Best New Transparency Law, Warrantless Spying Program, Cutting Toxics Release Inventory Reporting, Closure of EPA Libraries, Proliferation of Sensitive But Unclassified Information Categories, National Archives’ Reclassification, Dismissal of Data Quality Act Case, Acceptance of Increased Use of State Secrets Privilege, and more.

Good news from USDA… and a public interest group
The Associated Press reports that the Department of Agriculture plans to release a database that reports who gets about $56 billion in subsidies (USDA discloses individual farm payments, by Libby Quaid, Yahoo / AP, Dec 19, 2006). It will take them time to do this, but a public interest group is already posting some of the data. The Environmental Working Group has at least two databases of public information, the Farm Subsidy Database and the U.S. Mining Database. These are noble efforts to remix government information and make it more accessible than the government itself does. Bravo! (Thanks to Ted for this story!)

More Good News: Britain will not invade U.S.! John Lennon didn’t fund bookstore!
This week saw the release of the last few documents from the FBI’s John Lennon files. The Los Angeles Times reports that among other secrets the government fought 25 years to conceal was the fact that two British leftists tried to get Lennon to “finance a left-wing bookshop and reading room in London” but that Lennon didn’t. Why did the U.S want to hide this trivial information? It claimed that releasing it could result in “military retaliation against the United States.” Really, that’s what they claimed. We still don’t know which government shared these secrets with the U.S, but the article says that it is very difficult to believe that it could be any government other than the United Kingdom. “I doubt that Tony Blair’s government will launch a military strike on the U.S. in retaliation for the release of these documents” said historian, Jon Wiener. The ACLU is quoted as saying that the classification of these documents makes it seem that “…the head of document classification for the FBI must be (TV show satirst) Stephen Colbert.” See FBI to release last of its John Lennon files, By Henry Weinstein Los Angeles Times (December 20, 2006). The documents will be posted on the Internet today at http://www.LennonFBIfiles.com

Mr. Vice-President: Are You Listening? Award
While Vice President Cheney continues to claim that the people can’t know who he consulted when he worked on energy policy for the people (see Blow against open govt in Cheney case), at least one new member of Congress believes that openness is better than secrecy and is leading by example. The New York Times reports that “Representative-elect Kirsten Gillibrand has decided to post details of her work calendar on the Internet at the end of each day…” and comments that “For all the worthy proposals for ethics reform being hashed out by the incoming Congress, a heavy dose of Internet transparency should not be overlooked in the effort to repair lawmakers’ tattered credibility. The technology is already there, along with the public’s appetite for more disclosure about the byways of power in Congress.” Congress and the Benefits of Sunshine, Editorial, The New York Times (December 14, 2006)

The YouTube Effect
Finally, an Op-Ed in today’s Los Angles Times points out that the ability of citizens to make use of information and repost and remix it makes it harder for governments to lie and cover up misdeads. In The YouTube effect (Op-Ed, By Moisés Naím, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2006) Naím says that a video posted on YouTube disproves a Chinese government claim that soldiers shot Tibetan refugees in self-defense. He notes that “Governments are already feeling the heat of the YouTube effect — and cracking down online. Almost a third of all reporters jailed this year were Internet journalists. The U.S. military recently ordered its soldiers to stop posting videos online. Iran’s government restricts connection speeds to limit its people’s access to video streaming.” We might add that, if we lose Net Neutrality, we will increase the ability of the private sector and governments to filter and control what we see and who can see what.

What about Depository Libraries?
We stand at a crossroads. Technology provides many new possibilities for individuals and consumer groups and journalists and even politicians and governments to provide more access to more information to more people. But even as we see the possibilities, we see the battles getting tougher and governments going out of their way to control information. As OMB Watch says, The penchant for secrecy in the Bush administration “has pushed the pendulum far from openness and transparency.”

As Government information specialists we help people find information, but we rely on tools that are provided by the government and the private sector. Our ability to provide service is both enhanced and constrained by the decisions of these others (our “partners” as we like to call them).

When we give up our collections in the hopes that others (GPO and government agencies) will keep content available, we abrogate our role in the flow of information from producer to user. When we do this we no longer actively select, acquire, organize, and preserve information, but hope others will. When we do this, we change from being an active part of the information flow to a passive spectator of what others do. When we do this, we base our services, not on our work, but on hope: on hope that others will value the same information that we and our users value and that they will do so for as long as we do; on the hope that others will never make choices to cover up, hide, remove, alter, or charge for information.

As much as we’d like to hope that the technology crossroads will lead to more openness, we know as we look back on the battles of the past year that we can’t rely on that happening. As much as we’d like to hope that governments will be honest and open, we know they often will not. As much as we’d like to hope that governments will not base information decisions on budgets or politics, we know that all too often they do. As much as we’d like to hope that the private sector will do good things, we know that even the most altruistic among them don’t promise to “do good” but promise to “do no evil” and that, by definition, they make decisions based on profitability, not altruism.

We know that “hope” is essential to what we do, but that “hope” is not a policy or a method. We know that we have to do more. We have to be active and fulfill our societal role of ensuring long term preservation and access and usability of government information. We can’t do that by relying on others. It is our role to do that and doing less is a betrayal of the trust that our users place in us.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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