Access to information and freedom of expression are international human rights norms
We all want to be informed, to keep abreast of the latest events that affect, or are of interest to us.
This can be trivial; the latest celebrity gossip, or the football scores. But it can also be very important; legislation that affects how we live, or information on natural disasters. The best way to make sure we have access to the information that matters to us is to ensure a that everyone has access to all information and we can then each individually decide what is relevant to us.
What is access to information?
Access to information is the ability to access what information you want whenever you want it.
Access to information is therefore closely related to both governmental transparency and freedom of expression. Access to information includes governmental transparency as we need access to the huge quantities of information that government and private entities hold and create. Obtaining transparency in the information government and private entities have is necessary if we are to have full access to information.
Access to information is also one side of the coin whose other face is freedom of expression as we need information in order to be able to express ourselves, and we need others to be able to access our words in order for those words to have any impact.
Why is access to information important?
Article 19 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”1 We would all agree that freedom of speech and freedom of expression to be human rights but these rights are not very effective if there is no way for those who wish to access that information to obtain it. Access to information is therefore important because it facilitates freedom of speech. The simplest way for anyone wishing to prevent freedom of speech is to make sure that dissident voices simply cannot spread their message because their message will never be seen or heard by anyone else rather than by physically stopping that person from expressing themselves.
Access to information is also important for education and improving lives. Not having access to the internet is similar to not having basic schooling; it considerably narrows people’s options and their horizons. As Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the world wide web, argues “Given the many ways the web is crucial to our lives and our work, disconnection is a form of deprivation of liberty.” For a slightly more mundane side we should consider the way that having access to information about agricultural prices in rural Africa can allow farmers to sell their produce where it is needed so ensuring they receive a good price for what they grow.
What is the situation with access to information today?
We often think of the internet as being entirely free, a digital wild west where almost anything goes, but this is not the case in many countries around the world. Authoritarian governments recognise that to stay in power they need to control the internet and the access to information it provides. Many non-democratic regimes, as well as a few democratic ones, engage in censorship particularly over internal news relating to that country. China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is the most notorious censorship system and employs forty thousand internet police to monitor the country’s millions of web users. However many more countries have some form of censorship in operation, much of this involving blocking content that is perceived as being against the sitting government.
How is technology changing access to information?
Technology has completely changed our relationship with information. Information has been democratised. We all now have access to information through the internet. This is not just the case in western countries, in Nigeria there are more than 48million people with access to the internet almost a third of the population.
Advances in computer technology has allowed us to store our own personal information into ever smaller spaces and made it possible to carry that information around with us. At the same time mobile internet access means we can access information provided by everyone else as well. This means we can now access information almost wherever we are in the world.
What are the limits to access to information?
Ideally there should be very few limits to access to information but in practice we mostly accept that there will be some limits like national security, as with governmental transparency. A more physical limit is the sheer quantity of information, it is estimated that in 2007 295 exabytes of data was stored around the world which if stored as books would cover the area of the US in 13 layers of books. Added to this the most recent digital universe study estimates that 1.8 trillion gigabytes were to be created in 2011, a speed of data collection that is rapidly increasing. With so much information already available organisation is a major issue. There is no point in having all the information available if it cannot be found. This makes search engines a vital component of an open internet in which there is free access to information.
What are the main information access issues?
The big question is whether access to information should be considered to be a human right or whether it is simply a part of freedom of expression. If access to information is a human right, or even simply something to be promoted even if not a human right then we need to ask what government should be doing to facilitate access. Does government need to provide a good Internet connection? Should government be funding websites that provide large amounts of useful and important information? Beyond this there are questions about whether it is justifiable to restrict access to information in certain circumstances; riots or national emergencies for example.
Universal access to information is bound up with the right to seek and receive information, which is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression. It is covered by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The ACTION Coalition aims to play a leading role in advocating a human rights-based understanding of the Internet, opposing threats to Internet freedom, and representing Internet users in relevant forums, such as the Internet Governance Forum.