Right to Know

This is an older post which I saved as a draft and never published – until now. It’s still not finished, but what good is it just sitting in my draft file. I will endeavour to finish it soon.


I attended the Faculty of Civil Law’s Right to Know Day yesterday in honour of Germain Brière and the 30th anniversary of Canada’s passing of the Access to Information Act.

The panelists were all top-notch and the theme of the day, well, obviously, was Right to Know. It occurred to me more than once yesterday that librarians today have by and large lost touch with the underlying principles of Right to Know – the legislation AND the fundamental concept. By the end of the day, it was clear that there is confusion between the open data movement which librarians are supporting to the ends of the earth and the more broad and radical right to information, about which we have all but forgotten. Which is not unlike the majority of Canadians, as I also discovered yesterday.

One of the later panellists, Arnold Amber, brought this point home. Mr. Amber lives in Toronto where he has access to four daily newspapers which he can buy and another two free papers that he can read if he takes public transit. How could anyone complain about access to information in that context? Canadians  in general do not feel deprived of information, yet our government consistently has ranked very low (55th place out of a total of 95 countries with ATI laws) on the international Access to Information rankings. Why and how is this?

Before getting into it, let me explain the difference between open data and access to information, two fundamentally different concepts; one that is wholeheartedly embraced by the Canadian government (and librarians) and the other which is actively neglected and even suppressed by government (and librarians?). Open data refers to sharing of large sets of data which do generate from government or can also be born by others such as private corporations. These data are not personal in the sense that individuals can be identified; these data are aggregated and compiled so as to make comparisons with other groups of data possible. For example, one could compare access to clean water  on reservations in Ontario to access to clean water  somewhere else. These data can certainly be used to write better policy and change laws, and I as much as anyone else hope that they do improve the lives of citizens around the world, Canada included. Any attempt to use these data for such purposes ought to be acknowledged and I do no wish to take away from the potential successes that open data affords various governments to improve the lives of citizens.

The right to information, however, is an entirely different ball of wax and one which is nearly ignored by Canadians and librarians altogether. The right to information includes the right to know what our government does; what it purchases; its supply chains; the amount it pays for goods; the processes used in tender; who is hired, and how much they are paid; information on government programs, policies and staffing. In other words, the right to information is about the accountability of our elected officials towards the citizens. This is far more controversial than open data, and is a topic of public discussion where librarians are generally absent, though along with lawyers and public servants, academics and activists, they do have a role to play and could be exercising their considerable experience and knowledge in a very productive way.

What are the obstacles to accessing important information which enables transparency, discourages corruption, includes taxpayers and citizens part of the elements contributing to decision-making instead of the sorry losers in these decisions after the fact? Believe it or not, one of the main factors is the fact that there is very little awareness or support in government for record-keeping and information management. That’s right – the simple record-keeping; filing, file-naming, storing and retrieving records is one of the big problems facing government; and yet, in my generation of information studies at least, record-keeping was a strong presence in the faculty. Perhaps not the most exciting stream when examined from a purely technical point of view; but when viewed in light of ATI, record-keeping is essential to a healthy democracy. Kevin Page, the former PBO and lately appointed visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, described a government that not only is not interested in due diligence in terms of record-keeping, it has moved to “oral decision-making” where there is no trace of how government operates; an intensely worrying state of affairs.

Death of Aaron Swartz, Reddit co-founder

By Myron Groover, from the Arcan-l list.
“I write with tragic news many of you are undoubtedly already aware of – Aaron Swartz, Reddit co-founder and one of the most courageous and clear voices for an open and accessible information landscape, has been found dead of an apparent suicide weeks before he was to face a hugely punitive trial for sharing JSTOR articles freely online.
If you haven’t done so, please take the time to read some coverage of not only this event but of Aaron’s remarkable life and career – his loss will be keenly felt by all of us who work to make information more accessible.

Included below are a eulogy for Swartz by Cory Doctorow, a meditation on the incredibly misguided nature of his prosecution by esteemed Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, and a generic NY Times article about Swartz’ death.”


Silly Censorship (from EDRi-News)

European Digital Rights, an organization dedicated to digital rights based in Europe, has instituted a “Silly Censorship” roundup in its bi-weekly newsletter this week:

Over the past few years it has become more and more frequent that) private companies get to decide what is “appropriate” or “inappropriate” online and what sort of Internet content we are allowed to access. Our rights to privacy and freedom of expression are increasingly put into the hands of arbitrary decisions of private intermediaries. Instead of a society where democratically elected governments enact laws which are predictable and testable in court, we have an increasing number of terms of service which result in banning of content, deletion of profiles and censoring of material that is deemed “inappropriate”.

Recently, we have noticed a flood of examples of bizarre corporate censorship that demonstrate the absurdity and comedy behind a very serious problem – the abandonment of the rule of law in exchange for corporate regulation of freedom of speech. To illustrate this phenomenon, we picked five of the most bizarre examples and launched the “Silly Censorship Week” on Twitter, where users could vote for the worst case, simply by re-tweeting their favourite.

According to the number of re-tweets, the clear winner and silliest censor is Apple, who censored the title of Naomi Wolf’s new book “Vagina” in the itunes store. While Apple had no particular problem in selling the book to make a profit, it did feel the need to protect its customers from the name. As a result, Apple decided to call it V****a instead and to replace the word throughout the book’s description. In reaction to this, the author asked on Facebook “Why is this theme so very very taboo — in a land of 24/7 porn and commodification of women??”

The Guardian: Naomi Wolf’s ebook covered up by Apple itunes http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/13/naomi-wolf-vagina-apple-itunes-censors

Naomi Wolf’s comment on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/naomi.wolf.author/posts/388761331195124


And the next top 4 places are awarded to:

2nd Place: Apple is censoring the word “jailbreak” in iTunes http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/17/apple-is-censoring-the-wo_n_1524401.html

3rd Place: Nipplegate: Bob Mankoff expounds on why the New Yorker Cartoon department was temporarily banned from Facebook: http://nyr.kr/UFdwFw

4th Place: Apple bans Pulitzer Prize political cartoons from iPhone http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/04/15/mark_fiore_rejected_from_app_store/

5th Place: A mother was banned from Facebook for 7 days after posting a photo of her 5-year-old pretending to nurse her younger sibling http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/27/lauren-ferrari-banned-facebook-breastfeeding_n_1709928.html


The Canadian War on Science: Ottawa’s dangerous unscientific revolution – new post by John Dupuis

Posted by John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian

C. Scott Findlay, associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa and a visiting research scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, had a sobering article in the Toronto Star a few days ago.

It’s titled Governing in the dark: Ottawa’s dangerous unscientific revolution and it fits right in with my recent seemingly endless catalogue of how the current Canadian Conservative government is systematically undermining the free inquiry in Canada, scientific and otherwise. In the article Findlay first lays out some of the recent abuses and then gives four reasons why Canadians should resist the government’s efforts to ignore science.