The International Right to Know Day takes place annually on 28 September. The event was first proposed on 28 September 2002 at a meeting of Freedom of information organisations from around the world in Sofia, Bulgaria, in order to raise awareness about people’s right to access government information while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance. Freedom of information organisations and advocates around the world have since marked the date with activities to celebrate and raise awareness of the right to information.
Freedom of information is an extension of freedom of speech, a fundamental human right recognized in international law, which is today understood more generally as freedom of expression in any medium, be it orally, in writing, print, through the Internet or through art forms. This means that the protection of freedom of speech as a right includes not only the content, but also the means of expression. Freedom of information also refers to the right to privacy in the content of the Internet and information technology. As with the right to freedom of expression, the right to privacy is a recognised human right and freedom of information acts as an extension to this right. Lastly, freedom of information can include opposition to patents, opposition to copyrights or opposition to intellectual property in general. The international and United States Pirate Party have established political platforms based largely on freedom of information issues.
As of 2006 nearly 70 countries had freedom of information legislations applying to information held by government bodies and in certain circumstances to private bodies including Antigua and Barbuda, Angola, Armenia, Colombia, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Panama, Poland, Peru, South Africa, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom. However The degree to which private bodies are covered under freedom of information legislation varies, in Angola, Armenia and Peru the legislation only applies to private companies that perform what are considered to be public functions. In the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Finland, Trinidad and Tobago, Slovakia, Poland and Iceland private bodies that receive public funding are subject to freedom of information legislation. Freedom of information legislation in Estonia, France and UK covers private bodies in certain sectors. In South Africa the access provisions of the Promotion of Access to Information Act have been used by individuals to establish why their loan application has been denied. The access provisions have also been used by minority shareholders in private companies and environmental groups, who were seeking information on the potential environmental damage caused by company projects.
Access to information has increasingly been recognized as a prerequisite for transparency and accountability of governments, as facilitating consumers’ ability to make informed choices, and as safeguarding citizens against mismanagement and corruption. This has led an increasing number of countries to enact freedom of information legislation in the past 10 years. Recently private bodies have started to perform functions which were previously carried out by public bodies. Privatisation and de-regulation saw banks, telecommunications companies, hospitals and universities being run by private entities, has lead to demands for the extension of freedom of information legislation to cover private bodies.
In 1983 the United Nations Commission on Transnational Corporations adopted the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection stipulating eight consumer rights, including “consumer access to adequate information to enable making informed choices according to individual wishes and needs”. Access to information became regarded as a basic consumer right, and preventive disclosure, i.e. the disclosure of information on threats to human lives, health and safety, began to be emphasized.
Secretive decision making by company directors and accountancy fraud has also been linked to a number of corporate scandals such as Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, Adelphia and Global Crossing. This Has prompted the US Congress to impose new information disclosure obligations on companies with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act 2002. This led to freedom of information legislation which benefits investors.
Freedom of information (or information freedom) also refers to the protection of the right to freedom of expression with regard to the Internet and information technology. Freedom of information may also concern censorship in an information technology context, i.e. the ability to access Web content, without censorship or restrictions. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Declaration of Principles adopted in 2003 reaffirms democracy and the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Declaration also makes specific reference to the importance of the right to freedom of expression for the “Information Society” in stating:
“We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that 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. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organisation. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers.”
The 2004 WSIS Declaration of Principles also acknowledged that it is necessary to prevent the use of information resources and technologies for criminal and terrorist purposes, while respecting human rights. The WSIS Declaration only contains a number of references to human rights and does not spell out any procedures or mechanism to assure that human rights are considered in practice.
The digital rights group Hacktivismo, founded in 1999, argues that access to information is a basic human right. The group’s beliefs are described fully in the “Hacktivismo Declaration” which calls for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to be applied to the Internet. The Declaration recalls the duty of member states to the ICCPR to protect the right to freedom of expression with regard to the internet and in this context freedom of information. The Hacktivismo Declaration recognises the importance to fight against human rights abuses with respect to reasonable access to information on the Internet and calls upon the hacker community to “study ways and means of circumventing state sponsored censorship of the internet and implement technologies to challenge information rights violations. The Hacktivismo Declaration does, however, recognise that the right to freedom of expression is subject to limitations, stating “we recognised the right of governments to forbid the publication of properly categorized state secrets, child pornography, and matters related to personal privacy and privilege, among other accepted restrictions.” However, the Hacktivismo Declaration opposes the use of state power to control access to the works of critics, intellectuals, artists, or religious figures.”
In 2008 the Global Network Initiative (GNI) was founded upon its “Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy”. The Initiative was launched in the 60th Anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and is based on internationally recognized laws and standards for human rights on freedom of expression and privacy set out in the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Participants in the Initiative include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, other major companies, human rights NGOs, investors, and academics. However although Cisco Systems was invited to the initial discussions they didn’t take part in the initiative. Harrington Investments, proposed that Cisco establish a human rights board, dismissed the GNI as a voluntary code of conduct not having any impact and called for bylaws to be introduced that force boards of directors to accept human rights responsibilities. The internet has been a revolution for censorship as much as for free speech. The concept of freedom of information has emerged in response to state sponsored censorship, monitoring and surveillance of the internet. Internet censorship includes the control or suppression of the publishing or accessing of information on the Internet.
According to the Reporters without Borders (RSF) “internet enemy list” the following states engage in pervasive internet censorship: Cuba, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar/Burma, North Korea, Syria, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and the Great Firewall of China. This system blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through and consists of standard firewall and proxy servers at the Internet gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested. Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China is conducted under a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations. In accordance with these laws, more than sixty Internet regulations have been made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, and censorship systems are vigorously implemented by provincial branches of state-owned ISPs, business companies, and organizations. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on behalf of the United States, declared ‘we stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas’. In her ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom’ she also draws attention to how ‘even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable’, while reporting President Barack Obama’s pronouncement ‘the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become.