08 Jun 2013 Is Transparency enough?
Still needs a major rewrite
Is the goal of making transparent all of the Government requests enough? The answer is most certainly no. Even with the limited dataset we do have, we can begin to see a picture where neither Government, nor some ISPs are willing to completely disclose the details of these requests. There may be cases where this is legally justifiable, but without full disclosure and a lot more effort on the part of the Government to help explain these requests, there is much to be concerned about.
Recently Charles Mok’s motion, “Safeguarding freedom of information, of the press and of the Internet”, passed unanimously. This is good because it expresses consensus on the importance of protecting the freedom. However there is simply a lot we do not know. We can see that from this report; something as simple as documenting and disclosing what should be legal requests made by the Government on our behalf is not readily being shared. Although all members of Legco agree that freedom of information is important, the actions so far do not support this motion. This, of course, was a motion, with no legal force whatsoever. Thus, the goal of transparency in Hong Kong remains an intention, but not a reality.
Another interesting story breaking this week should help to explain why transparency is not enough. It was disclosed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting data from Verizon through a secret court order. This story erupted into further reports of data-mining that the US Government has been doing, and the story keeps getting bigger. This is a reminder that even when data is given by the Government, there are lots of reasons to believe that it simply is not complete or even accurate. As highlighted above, there are always issues around what information the Government can or will disclose. The Code on Access to Information in Hong Kong is a few pages long, whereas the Guidelines on the interpretation of the Code is almost 10 times the length. The goal of transparency is simple. We need to know more, as it helps us to do our jobs as citizens. In a article on how what we don’t know about government is what we should really fear, Bruce Schneier explains well why we need to know more:
Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal — or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law — but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.
Transparency is not enough, because knowing is an ongoing process. We can help to establish good practices for making these requests public, but that is not enough. We will need to continue to learn more about how our government functions, because it is always changing. And we need to be auditing what our government does in order to understand whether the disclosed information is complete and accurate. And if we find the government is acting outside the law, we must demand accountability.