Who gets Freedom of Information?

UK transparency campaigner, Heather Brooke, writes a comment piece on The Guardian website today on why she believes that UK university cancer researchers should have to give up information to transnational tobacco giant, Philip Morris. The basis for the argument is that Freedom of Information law should apply regardless of who the applicant is.

I generally admire Heather’s single-minded work on FoI, but single-mindedness is not always a virtue, and can sometimes lead to overly extreme conclusions which lack a broader understanding of the political economics involved. As in this case. As a researcher and analyst rather than a campaigner, I can see that there are three important counter-arguments to her piece:

1. Corporations are not people. There is a serious and ongoing battle here. Although legal incorporation means companies are often considered as legal people, we should not start to think of them as having ‘rights’ like individuals, not should rights that come from citizenship or by being an individual voter apply to them. Recently, the US supreme court rejected the argument of a large telecoms company that it had privacy rights. The worrying thing is that several lower courts had accepted that it could have such rights. Rather than providing corporations with more equivalences to human rights, we need to be holding corporations to account.  This brings me to…

2. The really important issue with large private companies and FoI is why those large private companies are not subject to the same kind of transparency. Corporate confidentiality makes no sense even in the context of liberal economic theory, however it makes even less sense if we think about FoI as a method of accountability. Corporations are unable to be held accountable via electoral processes and the markets are too diffuse and diverse (and spread across too many different countries) to work as a mechanism of accountability, so we need law that rebalances the power imbalances between corporations on the one had, and people, individually and collectively, on the other – through transparency. That is, after all, what is its main point when it comes to state transparency and FoI; it’s not really about ‘value for the tax payer’, it’s about power.

3. On that note, FoI is being increasingly used against academics and activists in particular as a form of intimidation by corporate interests. This is not to say that academics and activists should not be accountable, but it is not the case that all parties here of on a level playing field, and further, mechanisms of accountability are themselves not simply neutral or unequivocally always a good thing because of what they are supposed to do. Law has to embed intention, and be interpretable by the courts, in a way that clearly differentiates between legitimate use (for people holding organisations to account), poor excuses (as in the state claiming expense or lack of time as reasons for not releasing information), and blatant misuse of the law for purposes for which it was not intended. If it does not, it can simply become another method the intensification of organisational power against the interests of people.

Will the Global South overtake the North in transparency?

At a time when liberal democracies in the Global North seem increasingly paranoid and cutting down both on personal freedoms and government accountability, could nations from the Global South seize the moment to become the new pace-setters on open government?

There are plenty of good examples from Latin American, but it’s in Africa that the real changes are occurring. Yes, that’s the same Africa often stereotyped as the home of endless war, corruption, military coups and dictators. Kenya, in fact, which the pessimists were portraying as being on the brink of collapse and authoritarianism after election violence a few years ago. But now, Kenya is pushing forward with massive changes in the way its government operates with an increasing tendency towards open information and other accountability initiatives, as a Guardian story is reporting.

Cynics will argue that this is just pandering to a new urban middle class, with only 26% of Kenyans having home Internet access. However, like many countries in Africa, the communications revolution us predominantly mobile and almost 65% of Kenyans have mobile telephones and will be able to access mobile versions of the new sites.